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Children of the Dawn by  Elsie Finnimore Buckley

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EROS AND PSYCHE

I

[36]

I N the blue waters of the Ægean Sea, midway between Greece and Egypt, lies the fertile land of Crete. Here, long, long ago, when the gods still walked on earth in human form and the sons of men were as children playing in a fair garden, there ruled a king who was the father of three lovely daughters. They lived in a palace in the rich Omphalian plain, beneath the shade of snow-capped Ida, surrounded by smiling gardens and fruitful vineyards, with a glimpse, away to the southward, of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. So great was the beauty of these three maidens that their fame went abroad throughout all the land, and wealthy wooers flocked from far and wide to win their hands in marriage. The two elder sisters soon became the brides of two great princes, and were well content to pass their days in the sunshine of their husbands' love and admiration, and to deck themselves with gold and jewels, and listen to the praise [37] of their beauty upon the lips of men. For the gods had given them grace of form and feature, but their souls within were vain and foolish, so that in after-years, when they found their sister more blessed than they, their vanity and envy brought them to an evil end.

The youngest sister, whose name was Psyche, continued to live on at home long after the other two were married. In face and form she was as fair as they, whilst her soul within was so pure and beautiful that it shed a heavenly radiance about her, so that when men looked into her face all thoughts of love and wooing died out of their hearts, and they worshipped her as one of the Immortals. Wherever she passed voices were hushed and heads were bowed in prayer, till at length it was rumoured that Aphrodite herself, the Queen of Love, had come to live with men. The temples stood deserted and the altars bare of sacrifice, and from far and wide men flocked to Psyche with gifts and garlands and songs of praise.

Then foam-born Aphrodite, Queen of Love, was filled with jealousy and wrath that a mortal should usurp her place and name, and she cast about in her mind for some means of revenge.

"Verily, I must make this Cretan maiden rue the day when first men laid my offerings at her feet. I will smite her with so dire a malady that her very beauty shall be turned to scorn, and the heights to which her impious pride hath raised her shall be as nought to the depths of her shame and misery."

Thereupon she sent for her son, the great god Eros, who lords it over gods and men. The poison of his fiery darts none can withstand, and with him it rests to burn [38] men's hearts with the fever of unsatisfied desire, or so to temper the venom of his shafts that it runs like heavenly nectar through the veins. Yet the joy that he gives withal is akin to madness, and the torture of his wrath a frenzy unquenchable.

"Best-beloved son," she said, "if thou carest aught for thy mother's name and fame, thou wilt hasten now to do my bidding. In midmost Crete there dwells a maid—Psyche by name—whose impious pride hath cast dishonour on my godhead. The offerings that are mine by right are cast before her feet. My temples stand devoid of worshippers, who flock to pay her court; and all this not in Crete alone, but from the farthest shores of Hellas men cross the sea in white-winged ships to gaze upon her face. Go now, I pray thee, and smite her with a poisoned arrow from thy bow. Make her to love some loathly monster, deformed in soul and body, and with a passion so shameless and all-consuming that men shall spurn her, even as now they haste to pay their vows. As thou lovest me, go with all speed and do my bidding."

So Eros sped away to fulfill Aphrodite's command, and plant in the heart of Psyche the image of a dark and dreadful monster, and make her love it. As she slept he came and stood beside her, armed with his bow and poisoned arrows. But when he looked upon her his arm fell lifeless by his side, and the arrows slipped out of his hand, for never had he looked on one so fair; and her beauty smote his heart as surely as ever one of his own shafts had pierced a mortal's breast. From that moment he loved her with all his soul, and swore that no harm should ever come to her through him, but that he [39] himself and no other, whether man or monster, should be her bridegroom. And he picked up the arrow and put it back into the sheath.

"If she can trust me," he said, "she shall never feel a wound from one of these. I will carry her away, and she shall be mine; but till the gods are reconciled that I should wed a mortal, and my mother's anger is appeased, I must visit her only in the night-time, and she must not know who I am nor see my face. When the gods have proved her and found her worthy of me, then will I reveal myself to her, and through my love she shall be immortal, and dwell with me for ever in the shining courts of heaven."

And he bent over and kissed her lightly on the lips. She smiled in her sleep and held out her arms towards him, and he knew that his kiss had kindled in her heart the light of love.

Aphrodite, meanwhile, with her mind at rest, took her way along the shell-strewn curve of a sandy bay, and laughing ripples made music at her feet. The Sun was slowly sinking to his bed in Ocean's stream, and Night rode in her crescent car across the calm green vault of heaven. From Aphrodite's feet a broad gold path of light led straight to the sunset realms of Helios, the sun-god, and as she waited on the shore, a band of dolphins ploughed the sea towards her. In their wake came Tritons blowing on soft-voiced conches, and some drew a pearly shell behind and pushed it to the shore and bade her enter.

"Great Helios bids thee to his midnight revelry, O Queen of Love," they cried, "and we are come to guide [40] thee along the golden pathway to the glowing palaces of Sunset Land."

As the goddess stepped into the shell, they blew a loud salute upon their conches, and spread a silken sail above her head, and with music and laughter they crossed the shining sea to the golden halls of Helios.


II

Psyche, meanwhile, all unconscious of the wrath she had kindled in the breast of Aphrodite, was pining away at home in loneliness of heart. Little did she care for th worship that men paid her or for the offerings that they laid at her feet. It was for the love of a husband that she longed, and her soul was starving in the midst of rich gifts and the rapt, adoring gaze of worshippers. Her melancholy fastened on the king her father, and on all the palace, and soothsayers and augurs crowded round the doors with omens, charms, and riddling words, and prophesied all manner of evil.

At last the king could bear it no longer, and he set forth on pilgrimage to Apollo's shrine at Delphi, and made question of the oracle.

"Have the gods ordained that Psyche, my daughter, should die unwed, though the fairest maid on earth, or doth some bridegroom await her who tarrieth long? O god of Light, reveal his name, and save my child from death."

Then the tripod shook, and from the midst of the incense and vapour the priestess made reply,

"Think not of marriage-songs, O king, or bridal [41] torches. On a lonely rock on snow-clad Ida must thou leave thy child, the bride of no mortal man. But a savage monster shall come, the terror of gods and men, and shall bear her waay to his own land, and thine eyes shall see her no more. Wherefore make ready the funeral feast. Bring forth your sable robes of mourning, and bid the minstrels raise a dirge for the dead. For so the gods have willed it."

So the king went sadly home, and his heart was heavy within him. And all the people mourned with him; for they loved the fair princess, with her beautiful sad face and her kind and noble heart. All manner of tales went abroad of the monster she must wed, some saying one thing and some another. But most men thought it must be Talus, the great giant who guarded Crete. Three times every day did he walk around the island, and woe to any stranger who fell in his path or tried to land when he was by. For from top to toe he was made of burning metal—gold and silver and bronze and iron—while through his body ran one single vein that was filled with fire and fastened in his head with a nail. If any man tried to thwart him, he would gather him up in his great bronze arms and hold him to his breast, red-hot with the fire in his vein, and when he was well cooked through he would devour him. Many a long year after, when Jason sailed by with the heroes of the Golden Fleece, Talus rushed down, and would have stopped them from watering their ship, and have turned them adrift on the salt seas to be tortured to death with thirst. But Medea, Jason's dark witch-wife, beguiled him with fair promises, and made him cool his burning body in the sea before she would [42] come near. Then when she had him under her spells she softly drew the nail from his head, and the fire flowed forth from his vein, and all his strength departed, and he died with a curse on his lips for Medea and her wiles. But she only laughed loud, and bade Jason water the ship and thank the immortal gods that he had a witch-woman to wife. That, however, was long after, and Talus was now in the prime of life, and the terror of all the country-side.

Meanwhile, the land was plunged in mourning, and in the palace all was bustle and confusion in preparation for the funeral rites. All day long the old kiing sat in his chamber, and looked out towards the lonely heights of Ida, where his daughter was to be left.

"Better that she should die in her maidenhood," he cried, "then wed this terrible monster."

Psyche alone in all the palace was calm, and tried to comfort her father.

"Sire," she said, as she put her arms about his neck, "to look on thy tears is to me more bitter than my fate. Weep not for me, for something within me bids me take comfort, and I hear a sweet voice say, 'Rejoice, beloved, and come with me.' Dark was that day, my father, when first men laid their offerings at my feet, and my heart dwelt apart in its loneliness. And now, if but for one day I may look upon the face of my bridegroom, I would gladly die. For, methinks, it is no monster I must wed."

But the king thought only of the words of the oracle, and would not be comforted.

At length the bridal day dawned, and the sad procession wound slowly from the palace towards Ida. Choruses [43] of singers led the way with solemn dirges for the dead, and the king, uncrowned, followed with his nobles clad in armour and holding blazing torches in their hands. Next came Psyche, all in white, with a bridal veil and garlands, and surrounded by white-robed maidens; and last of all the people of the city followed with loud wailing and lamentation. Up the steep mountain road they went, and the path grew rougher and narrower step by step. On either side the dark rocks frowned down upon them, and echoed to and fro the wailings of the people as they passed, and above them the snow-capped peak of Ida stood out against the summer sky, like a lonely sentinel keeping watch over the plain below. Slowly the shadows of the rocks lengthened across the barren slopes, and the funeral torches shone pale in the glowing sunset light. At last they reached the appointed polace beneath the unmelting snow, and on the barren rock they set the maiden, and bade her a sorrowful good-bye. Ever and anon they turned back to look on her as they wound down the mountain-side, and only the snow-clad peak flashed like a ruby in the last rays of the sunk and as they looked backward for the last time they saw Psyche transformed in the golden light. Her white dress shone like a rainbow, and her golden hair fell about her shoulders like a stream of fire, and as she raised her arm to wave to them she looked like no mortal maid, but a goddess in all her beauty, so that the people hushed their voices and bowed their heads before her. Soon the light faded, and they could see her no more. Sadly they went their way, and [44] all down the mountain-track and across the plain below the torches shone out like twinkling stars in the darkness.

Psyche, meanwhile, left alone, pondered sadly on her fate, and wondered what the night would bring. And as she sat and pondered, a soft breeze played about her, filling her veil and robe, and gently she felt herself lifted from the rock and borne through the air, till she was laid down upon a grassy bank sweet with the scent of thyme and violets. Here a deep sleep upon her, and she knew no more.


III

Day was dawning when Psyche awoke, and high up in the bright air the larks were singing their morning hymn to the sun, and calling on bird and beast and flower to awake and rejoice in the glad daylight. At first she could remember nothing of what had happened, and wondered where she was; then slowly all the sad ceremony of the day before came back to her—the funeral procession up Mount Ida, the lonely rock on which she had been left, and the soft west wind that had borne her away. So she rose up from the green bank on which she had slept all night, and looked round about her to see what manner of land she was in.

She found herself standing on a hillock in the midst of a fertile plain. Steep cliffs rose up on every side as though to guard the peaceful valley, and keep out any evil thing that would enter in. To the eastward only was there a break in the mountain-chain, and the dale widened out towards the sea. As Psyche gazed, [45] the golden disc of the sun rose slowly from the water, and his bright rays lit up the grey morning sky and scattered the silvery mist that hung about the tree-tops. On either side of her was a wood, with a green glade between sloping up towards a marble temple, which flashed like a jewel in the rays of the rising sun. And Psyche was filled with wonder at the sight, for it seemed too fair to be the work of human hands.

"Surely," she thought, "it must be the handiwork of the lame fire-god Hephæstos, for he buildeth for the immortal gods, who sit on high Olympus, and none can vie with him in craft and skill."

Then she looked about her to see if anyone were near. But all around was quiet and still, with no signs of human habitation. Wondering the more, she drew near to the temple, and went up the marble stairs that led to the entrance. When she reached the top her shadow fell upon the golden gate, and, as she stood doubting what to do, they slowly turned on their hinges, and opened to her of their own acord, and she walked through them into the temple. She found herself in a marble court surrounded by pillars and porticoes which re-echoed the soft music of a fountain in the midst. Through the open doors of the further colonnade she caught a glimpse of cool dark rooms, with carvings of cedar-wood and silver and silken hangings. And now the air was filled with music and sweet voices calling her by name.

"Psyche, lady Psyche, all is thine. Enter in."

So she took courage and entered. All day long she wandered about the enchanted palace discovering fresh wonders at every step. Even before she knew it the [46] mysterious voices seemed to guess every wish of her heart. When she would rest they led her to a soft couch. When she was hungry they placed a table before her spread with every dainty. They led her to the bath, and clothed her in the softest silks, and all the while the air was filled with songs and music.

All this time she had not said a word, for she feared she might drive away the kindly voices that ministered to her. But at last she could keep silence no longer.

"Am I a goddess," she asked, "or is this to be dead? Do those who pass the gates of Death feel no change, nor suffer for what they have done, but have only to wish for a thing to gain their heart's desire?"

The voices gave her never a word in answer, but led her to the chamber where her couch was spread with embroidered coverlets. The walls all round were covered with curious paintings, telling of the deeds of gods and heroes—how golden Aphrodite loved Ares, the god of War, and Apollo the nymph Daphne, whome he changed into a laurel-tree that never fades. There was Ariadne, too, upon her island, whom the young god Dionysus found and comforted in her sore distress; and Adonis, the beautiful shepherd, the fairest of mortal men.

Psyche, tired out by all the wonders she had seen during the day, sank down upon her couch, and was soon asleep. But sleep had not long sealed her lids before she was awakened by a stir in the room. The curtain over her head rustled as though someone were standing beside her. She lay still, almost fainting with terror, scarcely daring to breathe, when she heard a voice softly call her by name.

[47] "Psyche, my own, my beloved, at last I have got thee, my dear one."

And two strong arms were round her and a kiss upon her lips. Then she knew that at last the bridegroom she had waited for so long had come to claim her, and in her happiness she cared not to know who he was, but was content to feel his arms about her and hear her name upon his lips. And so she fell asleep again. When she awoke in the morning her first thought was to look upon the face of the husband who had come in the dark night, but nowhere could she find him. All the day she passed in company of the mysterious voices who had ministered to her before; but though their kindness and courtesy was never failing, she wandered disconsolately about the empty halls, longing for the night-time, and wondering whether her lover would come again. As soon as it was dark she went again to her chamber, and there once more he came to her and swore that she was his for evermore, and that nothing should part them. But always he left her before it was light and came to her again when night had fallen, so that she never saw his face nor knew what he was like. Yet so well did she love and trust him that she never cared to ask him his secret. So the days and nights sped swiftly by, for in the daylight Psyche found plenty to amuse her in the enchanted palace and garden, and she did not think of loneliness when every night she could hold sweet converse with her beloved.

But one evening when he came to her he was troubled, and said,

"Psyche, my dear one, great danger threatens us, and [48] I must needs ask thee somewhat that shall grieve thy tender heart."

"Mine own lord," she said, "what can there be that I would not gladly do for thee?"

"Well do I know, beloved, that thou wouldst give thy life for me. But that which I ask will grieve thee sore, for thou must refuse the boon thy sisters shall ask thee."

"My sisters! They know not where I am. How, then, can they ask me a boon?"

"Even now they stand upon the lonely rock where thou wast left for me, to see if they can find thee or learn aught of thy fate. And they will call thee by name through the echoing rocks, but thou must answer them never a word."

"What, my lord! wouldst thou have my sisters go home disconsolate, thinking that I am dead? Nay, surely, thou wouldst not be so hard of heart? But let me bid the soft west wind, that wafted me hither, bring them too, that they may look upon my happiness and take back the tidings to mine aged sire."

"Psyche, thou knowest not what thou askest. Foolish of heart are thy sisters, and they love the trappings and outward show of woe, and with their mourning they wring their father's aching heart till he can bear it no more. So he hath sent them forth to see whether they can hear aught of thy fate. And, full of their own hearts' shallow grief, they seek thee on teh mountain-side, thinking to find thy bones bleaching in the rays of the sun. Were they to see thy happiness, their hearts would be filled with envy and malice. They would speak evil of me, and taunt thee on thine unknown lord, and bid thee look [49] upon my face and see lest I be some foul monster. And Psyche, mine own wife, the night that thou seest my face shall be the night that shall part us for evermore, and thy first look shall be thy last. Therefore answer them not, I pray thee, but stay with me and be my bride."

And Psyche was troubled at these words, for she thought her husband wronged her sisters. Nevertheless, unwilling to displease him, she said,

"I will do thy will, my lord, even as thou sayest."

Yet all the day long she thought on her sisters wandering on the bleak mountain-side, and how they would call for her by name, and at length go sadly home to her father's house and bring no comfort. The more she thought on it the sadder she became, and when her husband came to her, her face was wet with tears. In vain he tried to comfort her. She only sobbed the more.

"All my joy is turned to bitterness," she said, "when I think on the grief that bows down my father's heart. If but for one day I could bring my sisters here and show them my happiness, they would bear the news to him, and in my joy he would be happy too. Let them but come and look at this fair home of mine, and surely it will not harm me or thee, my dear lord?"

"I have not the heart to refuse thee, Psyche," he said, "though it goeth against me to grant this. I fear that evil will come. If they ask thee of me, answer them not."

Psyche was overjoyed at his consent, and thanked him, and put her arms about his neck and said,

"My dearest lord, all thou sayest I will do. For wert thou Eros, the god of Love himself, I could not love thee more."


IV

[50] The next day, when Psyche was left alone, she went out into the valley to see whether she could hear her sisters calling her. And sure enough, she had not gone far, when high up above her head, from the top of the cliff, she heard her name, "Psyche, O Psyche! where art thou?" At this she was overjoyed,

"O gentle Zephyr!" she called, "O fair west wind! waft, oh waft my sisters to me!"

Scarcely had she said the words than she saw her sisters gently borne down from the cliff above and set upon the ground beside her. She fell upon their necks and kissed them.

"Ah, my dear sisters," she cried, "how happy am I to see you! Welcome to my new home. See, I am not tortured, as you thought. Nay, my life is bliss, as you shall see for yourselves. Come, enter in with me."

And she took them by the hand and led them through the golden gates. The ministering voices played soft music in the air, and a rich feast was spread before them. All through the palace Psyche led them, and showed them all her treasures, and brought out her choicest jewels, and bade them choose out and keep as many as they wished.

All this time, though there was no corner of the palace that she kept hidden from them, she spoke no word of her mysterious husband. At length they could contain their curiosity no longer, and one made bold to ask her,

"Psyche, thou livest not here alone, of a surety. Yet where is thy lord? All thy treasures hast thou shown [51] us, but him, the giver of all, we have not seen. Who is he, then? Surely he, whom the winds and bodiless voices obey, must be a god, and no mortal man. Tell us of him, we pray thee."

And Psyche remembered her husband's warning.

"My lord," she said, " is a huntsman bold, and over hill and dale he rides this day after the swift-footed stag. As fair as the dawn is he, and the first down of youth is on his cheek. All through the hours of sunlight he goeth forth to the chase, and at eventime he returneth to me."

It was now close on night, and the shadows fell long across the cool green lawns of the garden. Psyche bethought her that it was high time for her sisters to go, before they could ply her with questions. So, kissing them farewell, and sending many a loving message to the king her father, she called on Zephyr to waft them away to the top of the cliff.

Hitherto the surprise and wonder at all they had seen and heard had filled the minds of the two sisters. But when they found themselves once more alone upon the barren mountain-slopes, they had leisure to think and compare their lot with that of their sister. Before they had seen her golden halls they had been quite content with their own palaces. But these now seemed humble beside the splendours they had just left. Their shallow hearts were quite filled up with the image of themselves, and they had no room left for their sister. But now her good fortune forced the remembrance of her upon them, and they were filled with an envy and jealousy of her which conquered even their love for themselves. They could not be content to return once more to their homes, [52] and receive the homage of their husbands and their households. Their one thought was how they might spoil her happiness. For the hatred that is born of self-love is an all-consuming passion that burns up every kind and noble thought, as a forest fire burns up the tall trees that stand in the path of its fury.

"How cruel and unjust," cried one, "that she, the youngest, should be blest so far above us both. My lord is a very beggar to him who giveth Psyche her golden halls to dwell in."

"Yea, and mine is an old man by the side of this beardless youth. Sister, thy grief and mine are one. Side by side let us work, and verily her cunning shall be great if she can avail against us and keep her ill-gotten wealth."

"Thou sayest well. 'Twas from pride that she welcomed us to her halls to flaunt her riches before us. Sister, I am with thee. Quickly let us plan some plot to unrobe this upstart maiden of her vaunted godhead."

Whereupon they agreed together to bring their father no word of Psyche's happiness. They tore their robes and loosed their hair, as though all this while they had been wandering over the rough mountain rocks.

"Ah, sire," they cried, "how can we tell thee the evil tidings? Nowhere can we find our sister, or any trace of her. Verily, the oracle lieth not, and she is the bride of some fell monster."

Their cruel words smote their father to the heart and quenched the feeble spark of hope that still burned in his breast. And when all hope leaves the heart of man, life leaves him, too. So the old king died, and his [53] blood was on the hands of his own children, and one day they paid the penalty with their lives.

Meanwhile, Psyche lived on in the happy valley in blissful content. Her husband would often warn her that her sisters were plotting her ruin, but she would listen to nothing against them. At last one night he said,

"Psyche, to-morrow thy sisters will seek thee once again. This time they will not wait for Zephyr to bear them down, but, trusting themselves to the barren air, they will hurl themselves from the cliff, and be dashed to pieces on the rocks below. Leave them to their fate. 'Twill be due penalty for their crime, and 'tis the only way that we can be saved, beloved."

"My lord," cried Psyche, "thy cruelty would kill my love for thee, were it not immortal. But, in very truth, all my joy would be slain did I know that my sisters were killed when I could have saved them. Oh, dearest husband, by the love that makes us one, I beseech thee, send Zephyr once more to bear my sisters hither."

And she sobbed so pitifully and prayed so earnestly that once again he had not the heart to refuse.

So about noontide the next day Psyche heard loud knocking and cries at the door, and she hastened to open it herself to her sisters. Again, she kissed them, and bade them welcome, and they deceived her with flattery and honeyed words, and when she was off her guard, one said,

"Come, tell us, Psyche, thy husband's name. Among the immortal gods, where doth he take his place, and why is he not here to greet us?"

"My husband," she replied, "is a rich merchant. Many a long year hath it taken to build up all the fortune [54] you behold, for already the hair about his temples is touched with snow. And this day hath he gone a long journey to a distant town in search of rich merchandise, and he returneth not till the setting of the sun."

Then quickly she called on Zephyr to bear them away before they could ply her with questions.

When her husband came that night he was more troubled than before, and begged her to see them no more, but let them be dashed to death on the rocks if they troubled her again. Her pure heart, however, would believe no evil of them; and in this one thing she disobeyed her lord.


V

Meanwhile, the second visit of the sisters to Psyche in her beautiful home had but served to add fuel to the fire of their envy. When they remembered her confusion and the different tales she told them about her unknown lord, jealousy whispered in their ears that all her happiness depended on the keeping of her secret, and that secret they straightway determined to know.

" 'Tis a strange lord, methinks," said one, "who in the waxing and waning of a single moon doth change from a beardless boy to a grave and reverend merchant whose hair is touched with snow."

"True, sister. And therein lieth the secret of her happiness. Her lying tale but proves that she hath never seen her lord. And verily, he who would hide his face from the queen of his heart must be some child of the Immortals, whose love for an earth-born maid must be hid from gods and men."

[55] "Yea, and they who are loved of the Immortals are themselves immortal, too, and their seed after them. Truly, sister, that Psyche should be a goddess is more than I can bear."

"I feel with thee! It is not meet that the youngest should have all. Let us invent some lying tale which shall make her look upon her lord, and break the spell which binds him to her."

"What sayest thou to the words of the oracle that doomed her to wed a monster? Let us go to her and say that now we know this to be true, and beg her to flee from fate so vile."

So once more they trusted themselves to Zephyr, for Psyche had prevailed upon her lord to promise that, so long as her sisters should do her no harm, Zephyr should always be waiting to carry them to and fro from her.

Early the next day she was aroused from sleep by the sound of weeping and lamentation at her door, and she hastened to meet her sisters, fearing some ill news. And they fell upon her neck, crying,

"Alas, alas, for thine evil fate!"

"Mine evil fate, sisters? What mean ye? All is well with me."

"Ah, so thou thinkest in thine heart's innocence. Even so falleth the dove a victim to the hawk that wheeleth avove."

"What talk is this of doves and hawks? Come, my sisters, weep no more, for in this pleasant vale even the winds of heaven breath gently on me, so good and great is my lord who commandeth them."

[56] "Thy lord! Hast ever seen his face, child, that thou callest him good and great?"

"Nay," she answered, blushing to think that they had guessed her secret, " 'tis true I have not seen his face, but what need to look upon him when all around me breathes of his love for me?"

"Hast never heard tell of foul monsters that wed with the daughters of men, and come to them only in the night season, when the darkness can hide their deformity? They cast a spell about their victims, and by their wiles and enchantments they make all things about them seem fair. But one day, when they have had their fill, and tire of the maid they have won, lo! at a word the pleasant palaces and gardens vanish into air, and she is left ashamed and deserted, and scorned by gods and men. Ah, sister, be warned by those who wish thee well, and flee from thy vile lot ere all is lost. Even yesterday, when we left thee, we saw a monstrous shape that glided after us through the wood, and we fled in terror, knowing it was thy lord, who would not have us near thee. Come with us now, and be saved."

When Psyche heard their words she was very troubled. Truly, 'twas strange that her lord should be loath for her to see her sisters, unless, indeed, it was even as they said, and she was the prey of some terrible beast. Yet his kind and loving words and his tender thought for her welfare and all the beauty that surrounded her gave the lie to such a thought.

"My dear sisters," she cried, "I thank you for your loving fears for me, but it cannot be as you say. Though I have never looked upon my lord, these fair halls and [57] gardens do but mirror forth the beauty of his soul, and I know that he is true."

"Then why doth he hide his face? At least, if thou wilt not flee with us now, do but put him to the test when he comes this night. A glimpse at his form will tell thee that our tale is true; and if by some strange chance it be not so, what harm can one glance do?"

Thus they tempted her, and made her doubt her lord, though sore against her will. So it often happens that the pure of heart are tortured by the doubts which the wicked plant in their breasts. As little does a young bird in the greenwood suspect the hunter's snare as did Psyche in her loving innocence suspect the malicious envy of her sisters.

But they were filled with joy at the success of their plot, and when Zephyr had borne them to the top of the cliff they could contain their gladness no longer, but fell upon each other's necks and kissed and danced for glee.

But Psyche at their bidding made ready to look upon her lord that night. Under a chair she placed a lighted lamp in readiness, and shrouded it about, that the light might not shine into the room and betray her purpose. Trembling she went to bed that night, for she hated the deed she must do. At the usual hour her lord came and spoke lovingly to her, and kissed her, but her words died away upon her lips, and she shuddered at his embrace. In time he fell asleep, and his breathing was gentle and even as that of a child sweetly dreaming in its innocence at heart. Then she rose up silently in the dead of night, and walking softly to the chair, she took the lamp from [58] beneath and turned on tiptoe to the bed. High above her head she held the light, that the rays might fall more gently on him as he slept, and with bated breath she drew near and looked on him. As she looked, the blood rushed headlong through her veins, and her heart beat fast within her, and her limbs seemed turned to water as she bent forward to look more closely. For on the bed, wrapped in deep slumber, lay no terrible monster, as she feared, but the youngest and fairest of the Immortals—Eros, the great god of Love. The gleam of his golden locks was as sunshine on the summer sea, and his limbs like the eddying foam. From his shoulders sprang two mighty wings bright as the rainbow, and by his side lay his quiver and darts. As he moved restlessly in the light of the lamp she heard her name upon his lips. With a low cry she fell on her knees beside him, and as she did so her arm grazed the point of an arrow placed heedlessly in the sheath. The poison ran like liquid fire through her veins, and set her heart aflame, and with blazing cheeks she bent over and kissed him on the lips. As she did so the lamp trembled in her hand, and a drop of the burning oil fell upon his shoulder, and he started up and found her bending over him.


[Illustration]

ON THE BED, WRAPPED IN DEEP SLUMBER, LAY NO TERRIBLE MONSTER, AS SHE FEARED, BUT THE YOUNGEST AND FAIREST OF THE IMMORTALS

"Ah, wretched, wretched Psyche!" he cried; "what hast thou done? Couldst thou not trust me, who gave thee all the happiness thou hast ever known?"

"My lord, my lord, forgive me! I would but prove to my sisters by mine own eyes' witness that thou wert not the monster that they dreaded."

"Thrice foolish maid! Knowest thou not that doubt driveth away love? Did I not tell thee that thy first [61] look would be thy last? From a terrible fate I saved thee when Aphrodite bade me strike thee with my shaft and make thee love some terrible beast. When I went forth to do her bidding thy grace and beauty conquered me, and I took thee away to be my bride; and in time, hadst thou proved worthy, my mother and all the great gods that rule above would have forgiven me, and shed on thee the gift of immortality, to live with me for ever in the courts of heaven. But now all is lost, and I must leave thee."

"Ah, my lord, great is my sin, but I love thee, and my soul is thine. Over the whole wide world would I wander, or be slave to the meanest of men, so be it I could find thee again. Ah, dearest lord! tell me not that all hope is gone."

One moment he was silent, as though doubting her. Then he answered,

"One way there lieth before thee, if thy courage prove greater than thy faith—one only way, by which thou canst reach me—the long rough path of trial and sorrow. Heaven and earth shall turn against thee; for men win not immortality for a sigh. Yet will I help thee all I may. In thine own strength alone thou wouldst faint and die by the way, but for every step thou takest I will give thee strength for two. And now farewell! I can tell thee no more, neither linger beside thee. Fare thee well, fare thee well."

As he vanished from her eyes Psyche fell senseless on the floor, and for many a long hour she lay there, hearing and seeing nothing, as though life itself had fled.


VI

[62] Meanwhile the two sisters were waiting in a frenzy of impatience to know whether success had crowned their evil plot. If the doubt they had planted in Psyche's breast had borne fruit, and she had dared to disobey her lord, they knew full well that all her happiness would have vanished like a dream. Yet, fearing the anger of him whom the winds of heaven obeyed, they dared not trust themselves to Zephyr, who had carried them down before. So they wandered restlessly from room to room, and peered from the windows, hoping that Psyche in her misery would come to them and beg for succour in her evil plight. There was nothing they would have loved better than to spurn her from their doors and taunt her on the retribution which had fallen on her vanity. But all day long they waited, and yet she came not, so that at length they parted and went each one to her couch.

But the night was hot and sultry, and the eldest sister lay on her bed and tossed restlessly from side to side, and could not sleep. At length she went to the casement and drew aside the curtain and looked out on the starry night, and when she had cooled her burning brow she went back to her couch. Just as she was about to fall asleep she felt a shadow pass between her and the light from the window, and she opened her eyes, and her heart beat fast; for straight in the path of the moonbeams stood Eros, the great god of Love, and his wings stood out black against the starlit sky as he leant on his golden bow. Though his face was dark in the shadow, his eyes seemed [63] to pierce through to her heart as she lay still and trembling with fear. But he spoke softly to her with false, honeyed words.

"Lady, thy sister Psyche, whom I chose out from the daughters of men, hath proved false and untrue, and lo! now I turn my love to thee. Come thou in her stead and be mistress in my palace halls, and I will give thee immortality. Lo! even now Zephyr awaits thee on the mountain-top to bear thee away to my home."

So saying, he faded from her sight. Her wicked heart was filled with joy when she heard of Psyche's fall, and she rose up in the dead of night and put on her gayest robe and brightest gems. Without so much as a look on the prince her husband she went out to the mountain-top. There she stood alone, and called softly to Zephyr,

"O Zephyr, O Zephyr, O fair west wind, waft me, oh waft me away to my love!"

Without waiting she threw herself boldly down. But the air gave way beneath her, and with a terrible cry she fell faster and faster, down, down, to the gulf below, and was dashed to pieces on the rocks; and from the four quarters of heaven the vultures gathered and fed upon her flesh.

As for the second sister, to her, too, the god appeared and spoke false honeyed words, and she too went forth alone; and in the morning her bones lay gleaming white beside her sister's on the rocks below.


VII

[64] When Psyche awoke from her swoon, she looked around in bewilderment, for the scene which met her eyes was the same, and yet so different. The forest-trees waved their arms gently in the breeze, and whispered to each other in the glad morning light, and in the hedges the birds sang sweet songs of joy; for the skies were blue, and the grass was green, and summer was over the land. But Psyche sat up with a dull grief in her heart, feeling over her the dim shadow of a half-forgotten woe that meets those who awake from sleep. At first she wondered where she was, for her clothes were wet with dew, and looking round the still familiar scene, she saw the green glade in the forest, but no shining palace at the top. Then like a flash she remembered the night, and how by her doubt she had forfeited all her happiness, and she lay on the ground and sobbed and prayed that she might die. But soon tired out with weeping, she grew calmer, and remembered the words of her lord—how she could find him again only after long wandering and trial. Though her knees gave way beneath her, and her heart sank at the thought of setting out alone into the cruel world, she determined to begin her search forthwith. Through the dark forest she went, and the sun hid his face behind the pine-tops, and great oaks threw shadows across her path, in weird fantastic forms, like wild arms thrust out to seize her as she passed. With hurrying steps and beating heart she went on her way till she came out on the bleak mountain-side, where the stones cut her tender feet and the brambles tore her without mercy. [65] But on and on she struggled along the stony road, till the path grew soft beneath her, and sloped gently downwards to the plain. Here through green fields and smiling pastures a river wound slowly towards the sea, and beyond the further bank she saw the smoke from the homesteads rise blue against the evening sky. She quickened her steps, for already the shadows from the trees fell long across the fields, and the grass turned to gold in the light of the dying day. And still between her and shelter for the night lay many a broad meadow and silver stream to cross. As she drew nearer she looked this way and that for a ford, but seeing none, she gathered together her courage, and breathing a prayer to the gods, stepped into the water. But she was weak and faint with fasting, and at every step the water grew deeper and colder, and her strength more feeble, till at length she was borne off her feet, and swept away by the hurrying tide. In her agony she cried out,

"O god of Love, have mercy and save me ere I die, that I may come to thee!"

Just as she was about to sink, she felt a strong arm seize her and draw her up on the opposite shore. For a while she lay faint and gasping for breath; but as her strength returned, she heard close beside her soft notes of music, and she opened her eyes to see whence the sweet sounds came. She found herself lying beneath a willow-tree, against which leant a strange musician. For his head and shoulders and arms were those of a man, but his legs and feet were thin and hoofed, and he had horns and a tail like a goat. His ears were pointed, his nose was wide and flat, and his hair fell unkempt and [66] wild about his face. Round his body he wore a leopard's skin, and he made sweet music on a pipe of reeds. At first she was terrified at the sight of this strange creature, but when he saw her look up at him, he stopped playing, and smiled at her; and when he smiled he puckered his face in a thousand wrinkles, and his eyes twinkled merrily through his wild elf-locks, so that none could look on him and be sad. In spite of all her woes Psyche fairly laughed aloud as he began to caper round her on his spindle legs, playing a wild dance-tune the while. Faster and faster he went, and up and down, and round and round, till, with a last shrill note on his pipe and a mad caper in the air, he flung himself on the grass beside her.


[Illustration]

FASTER AND FASTER HE WENT, AND UP AND DOWN, AND ROUND AND ROUND.

"Have I warmed the blood back to thy heart, fair maid?" he asked, "or shall I dance again the mad dance that drives away cold and despair?"

"Nay, merry monster, even now my sides ache with laughter. But tell me, who art thou, that savest damsels in distress, and drivest away their sorrow with thy wild piping and dance?"

"I am the god of the forest and woodland and broad wide pasture lands. To me the shepherd prays to give increase to his flocks and the huntsman for a good day's sport. In the evening, when the moon shines high o'erhead, and the sky is bright with stars, I take my pipe and play my lays in the dim dark forest glades. To the sound of my music the brook murmurs sweetly, and leaves whisper softly o'erhead, the nymphs and naiads forget their shyness, and the hamadryad slips out from her tree. Then the eyes of the simple are opened, and on the cool, green grass by the side of the silver stream [69] the goatherd, the neatherd and the young shepherd-lad dance hand-in-hand with the nymphs, and the poet, looking forth from his window, cries, 'How sweet are the pipes of Pan!'

"But when the dark storm-cloud rides over the sky, and the streams rush swollen with rain, with fleet foot I hurry through woodland and dell, and over the bleak mountain-tops; the crash of my hoofs on the rocks sounds like thunder in the ears of men, and the shriek of my pipe like the squall of the wild storm-wind. And I rush through the midst of the battle when the trumpets are calling to arms; but above the blare of the bugle men hear the shrill cry of my pipes. Then the archer throws down his bow, and the arm of the spearman falls limp, and their hearts grow faint with panic at the sound of the pipes of Pan. Nay, turn not from me in terror, lady," he added, as Psyche made as though she would flee, "for I wish thee no ill. 'Tis gods mightier than I who have made me goat-footed, and with the horns and the tail of a beast. But my heart is kindly withal, or I would not have saved thee from the stream."

Once more he smiled his genial smile, and puckered his face like the ripples on a lake when a breeze passes over,

"Come, tell me who art thou, and how can I help thee?"

Then Psyche told her tale, and when she had finished Pan was silent for a time, as though lost in thought. At length he looked up, and said,

"Thou seekest the great god Eros? I would that I could help thee, lady; but love once fled is hard to find again. Easier is it to win the dead to life than to bring back love that doubt hath put to flight. I cannot help [70] thee, for I know not how thou canst find him, or where thou must seek. But, if thou wilt journey further, and cross many a long mile of pasture and woodland, though wilt come to the rich corn-lands and the shrine of Demeter, the great Earth Mother. She knows the secret of the growing corn, and how the rich fruits ripen in their season, and she will have pity on a maid like thee, because of her child Persephone, whom Hades snatched away from her flowery meadows and dragged below to be Queen of the Dead. Three months she lives with him, the bride of Death, in the dark world of shades, and all the earth mourns for her. The trees shed their leaves like tears on her grave, and through their bare branches the wind sings a dirge. But in the spring-time she returns to her mother, and the earth at her coming puts on her gayest robe, and the birds sing their brightest to welcome her back. At her kiss the almond-tree blushes into bloom, and the brook babbles merrily over the stones, and the primrose and violet and dancing daffodil spring up wherever her feet have touched. Go, then, to Demeter's shrine; for if thy love is to be sought on earth, she will tell thee where to go; but if to find him thou must cross the dark river of death, her child Persephone will receive thee."

He then pointed out to her the path to the village, where she could get shelter for the night, and Psyche, thanking him, went on her way, gladdened at heart by the genial smile of the wild woodland god.

That night she slept in a shepherd's cottage, and in the morning the children went out with her to point out the road she must go. The shepherd's wife, standing at the door, waved to her with her eyes full of tears. She [71] had maidens of her own, and she pitied the delicate wanderer, for Psyche's beautiful face had shed a light in the rude shepherd's hut which the inmates would never forget.


VIII

So Psyche went on her journey, often weak and fainting for food, and rough men laughed at her torn clothes and bleeding feet. But she did not heed their jeers and insults, and often those who had laughed the loudest when she was a little way off, were the first to hush their rude companions when they saw here near. For her face was fairer than the dawn and purer than the evening star, so that the wicked man turned away from his sin when he saw it, and the heart of the watcher was comforted as he sat by the sick man's bed.

At length, as Pan had told her, she came to the rich corn-lands where Demeter has her shrine. Already the valleys were standing thick with corn, for it was close on harvest-time, and on the hill-sides the purple grapes hung in heavy clusters beneath the tall elm-branches. As she drew near the temple, a band of harvesters came out. They had just placed the first-fruits of the corn in the shrine, and now they were trooping to the fields, a merry throng of young men and maidens. Psyche stood back slyly as they passed, but they heeded her not, or at most cast a curious glance at her ragged clothes and bruised feet. When they had passed her, and she had heard their merry laughter and chatter die away down the lane, she ventured to enter the temple. Within all was dark and peaceful. Before the altar lay sheaves [72] of corn and rich purple clusters of grapes, whilst the floor was strewn with the seeds and bruised fruits which the harvesters had let fall when they carried in their offerings. Hidden in a dark corner Psyche found the temple-sweeper's broom, and, taking it, she swept up the floor of the temple. Then, turning to the alter steps, she stretched forth her hands and prayed,

"O Demeter, great Earth Mother, giver of the golden harvest—O thou who swellest the green corn in the ear, and fillest the purple vine with gladdening juice, have mercy on one who has sinned. For the sake of thy child, Persephone, the Maiden, have pity on me, and tell me where in the wide world I can find Eros, my lord, or whether to the dark land I must go to search for him."

So she prayed, and waited for an answer; but all was still and dark in the temple, and at length she turned sorrowfully away, and leant her head against a pillar and wept. And, because she had walked many a long mile that day, and had not eaten since dawn, she sank down exhausted on the ground, and gradually her sobs grew fewer and fainter, and she fell asleep.

As she slept she dreamt the temple was dark no more, but into every corner shone a soft clear light, and looking round to see whence it came, she saw, on the alter steps, the form of a woman, but taller and grander than any woman of earth. Her robe of brown gold fell in stately folds to her feet, and on her head was a wreath of scarlet poppies. Her hair lay in thick plaits on her bosom, like ripe corn in the harvest, and she leant on a large two-handed scythe. With great mild eyes she looked at [73] Psyche as one who has known grief and the loss of loved ones, and can read the sorrows of men's hearts.

"Psyche," she said, "I have heard thy prayer, and I know thy grief, for I, too, have wandered over the earth to find the child of my love. And thou must likewise wander and bear to the full the burden of thy sin; for so the gods have willed it. This much I tell thee, and no more. Thou must go yet further from the land of thy birth, and cross many a rough mountain and foaming torrent, and never let thy heart grow faint till thou come to a temple of Hera, the wife of Zeus the All-seeing. And if she find thee worthy, she will tell thee how thou must seek thy love."

So saying, she faded from her sight, and Psyche awoke and found the temple cold and dark. But in her heart she cherished the image of the great Earth Mother, with her large eyes full of pity, and set out comforted on her journey.

Too long would it be to tell of all her wanderings and all the hardships of the road, but many a moon had waxed and waned before she stood on the brow of a hill looking down on Hera's shining temple. Down the hill she went and up the marble steps, and men stood aside as she passed, for her face was fairer than before, and she no longer shrank back like a haunted thing, but walked with the swinging gait of those whose feet the kind earth has hardened, and the breezes of heaven have fanned the fire in their eyes. In her heart she knew that she had conquered and borne the terrors of the path with no coward's fears, and she prayed that Hera might find her worthy of doing great deeds to win back her lord. Then she stood before the altar, and made her prayer,

[74] "O Hera, golden-throned, who sittest on the right hand of Zeus—O thou who, when the marriage-torch is lit, doth lead the bride and bridegroom to their home, and pourest blessings on their wedded love, have mercy on me, and show me where I may find my lord. Far have I wandered, and drunk deep of sorrow's cup, but my heart is strong for any task that shall win back my love to me."

Thus she prayed, and bowed her head before the great white statue of the goddess. Even as she spoke, the statue seemed to change and rise from the ivory throne in the shape of a woman tall and exceeding fair. Her robes were like the clouds at sunset, and her veil like the mountain mist; on her head she wore a crown of gold, and the lightning played about her feet as she gazed at Psyche with eyes that pierced through to her soul.

"Psyche," she said, "I have heard thy prayer, and I know that thou art true. For I am the wife of Zeus, who seeth all things, and he hideth naught from me. Well I know that thou has wandered far, and suffered at the hands of men. But greater trials await thee yet, before thou canst find thy lord. Thou must be a slave to foam-born Aphrodite, the pitiless goddess of Love. And she will try thee sorely, and put thee to many a hard test ere she will forgive thee and think thee worthy of her son Eros, or of the godhead men gave thee long ago. But if thou overcomest her wrath, thou hast overcome death itself, and naught can part thee from thy lord again. Go, then, to where she holds her court in a pleasant valley by the sea, and forget not that the gods bless tenfold those [75] who waste not the power that is given them, how feeble soe'er it be."

So saying, she faded slowly away till Psyche found herself standing once more before the pale white statue. Then she turned and went through the silent temple, and out into the sunlight, and asked for the road which would lead her to the sea and Aphrodite's pleasant vale.


IX

For many a long day she journeyed, till at length she saw the blue sea far away and a pleasant valley sloping to the shore. Here the waves broke in laughing ripples on the beach, and the leaves danced gaily on the trees in the soft west wind; for Aphrodite, born of the foam, the fairest of all the goddesses, held her court there, surrounded by her nymphs and maidens. As she sat on her golden throne they danced around her with their white arms gleaming, and crowned her with roses, singing the while the song of her beauty.

"O foam-born Aphrodite, Queen of Love, fairest of Time's deathless daughters. Thee the golden-snooded Hours kiss as they pass and the circling Seasons crown with grace. Before thee all was fire and chaos, but at thy coming like sped to like. The earth decked herself with flowers, and the nightingale sang to her mate on the bough, and in the pale moonbeams youth and maiden sped hand in hand through the glade. Thy smile is like sunshine on ripples, but the flash of thine eyes like the death-bearing gleam of the lightning; for not always art thou kind. The heart of the scorner thou breakest, [76] and art jealous for thy rites. Wherefore north and south and east and west men worship thee, now and evermore, O goddess of ten thousand names!"

As Psyche drew near the nymphs espied her. With loud cries they rushed forward, and flinging chains of roses about her, dragged her forward before the throne.

"A prisoner, a prisoner!" they cried—"a mortal, O queen, who has dared to enter they sacred vale! What fate shall be hers?"

And Psyche knelt trembling before the throne. She dared not look up, for she felt the eyes of the goddess upon her, and the blaze of her anger burned through to her heart.

"Psyche, what doest thou here? Knowest thou not that long ago I loved thee not, because thy beauty taught men to forget my dues, and mine own son didst thou lead to disobey my word? By thy folly hast thou lost him; and glad am I that he is rid of thy toils. Think not that thy tears will move me. Those who enter my sacred vale become the lowest of my slaves, and woe to them if they fail to do the task I set them. Verily, thine shall be no light one, or I am not the Queen of Love and Beauty."

"O lady," answered Psyche, " 'twas to be thy slave and to do thy will that I came to thy sacred vale, if haply I might turn thy wrath to love and prove myself not all unworthy of thy son. Great was my sin, O goddess, when I doubted him; but many are the tears I have shed, and weary the way I have wandered in search of him—yea, even to the dark underworld would I go, if so be it I could find him there. As for the worship that [77] men paid me, Zeus, who searcheth all hearts, knoweth that I lifted not mine in pride above thee. Nay, doth not every gift of beauty come from thee, O mighty one? If my face hath any fairness, 'tis that it shadoweth forth thine image. Weak are the hearts of men, lady, and hard is it for them to look on the sun in his might. Be not angry then, if through the mortal image that perisheth, they stretch forth blind hands towards the beauty that fadeth not away. And now on my hands and knees I beg thee, O queen, to set me thy hardest tasks, that I may prove my love or die for mine unworthiness."

As Psyche was speaking the face of the goddess softened, and she answered her more gently.

"Thy words please me, maiden, for the gods love those who shrink not back from trial. Three tasks I will set thee, and if in those thou fail not, one harder than all the others will I give thee, whereby thou shalt win thy love and immortality. Go, maidens, and lead her to my garner, that she may sort the golden grain ere the sun's first rays gild the pine-tops."


X

At the command of the goddess the nymphs gathered round Psyche, and, binding her hands with chains of roses, led her away to the garner. Here they set her free, and with peals of merry laughter bade her farewell.

"Pray to the hundred-handed one, maiden, to help thee," cried one; "thy two hands will not go far."

"Nay, an hundred hundred hands could not sort the grain by sunrise," said another.

[78] "Better to work with two hands," said Psyche, "than idly to pray for ten thousand."

But for all her brave answer her heart sank as she looked at the task before her; for she stood in the largest garner it had ever been her lot to see—wide and lofty as her father's palace-halls, and all the floor was strewn with seeds and grain of every kind—wheat, oats and barley, millet, beans and maize, which she must sort each after its kind into a separate heap before the sun should rise. However, she set diligently to work, and minute after minute, hour after hour passed swiftly by, and the heaps growing by her side; yet for all her toil 'twas but a tiny corner of the garner she had cleared. Feverishly she worked on, not daring to look at what remained to do. Her back ached, her arms grew stiff, and her eyes felt heavy as lead, but she worked as one in a dream, and her head kept falling on her breast for weariness, till at length she could hold out no longer, but fell fast asleep upon the cold stone floor.

While she slept a marvellous thing happened. From every hole and crack there appeared an army of ants—black ants, white ants, red ants—swarming and tumbling over each other in their haste. Over the whole floor of the garner they spread, and each one carried a grain of seed, which it placed upon its own heap and ran quickly back for another. Such myriads were there, and so quickly did they work, that by the time the first ray of the sun peeped in at the windows the floor was clear, save for the heaps of sorted grain standing piled in the midst. The bright light pouring in at the window fell upon Psyche as she slept, and with a start she awoke and began [79] feverishly to feel about for the grain. When her eyes became accustomed to the light, how great was her joy and thankfulness to see the neat heaps before her! And as she looked around, wondering who could have been so kind a friend, she saw the last stragglers of the ants hurrying away to every crack and cranny.

"O kind little people," she cried, "how can I thank you?"

She had no time to say more, for the door was thrown open, and in a golden flood of sunlight the nymphs came dancing in. Seeing the floor cleared and the bright heaps lying on the floor, they stopped short in amazement.

"Verily thou hast wrought to some purpose, maiden," said one.

"Nay, she could never have done it of herself," said another.

"True, O bright-haired ones!" answered Psyche. "I toiled and toiled, and my labour did but mock me, and at length my strength gave way and I fell asleep upon the floor. But the little folk had pity on me, and came out in myriads and sorted out the grain till all was finished. And lo! the task is accomplished."

"We will see what our queen shall say to this," they answered.

And binding her once more in their rosy chains, they led her to Aphrodite.

"Hast thou swept my garner, Psyche, and sorted the grain each after its kind?" she asked.

"Thy garner is swept and thy grain is sorted, lady," she replied, "and therein I wrought the little my feeble [80] strength could bear. When I failed the little folk came forth and did the task."

Trembling, she waited for the answer, for she feared that in the very first trial she had failed. But Aphrodite answered,

"Why dost thou tremble, Psyche? The task is accomplished, and that is all I ask; for well do I know the little folk help only those who help themselves. Two more tasks must thou do before I put thee to the final proof. Seest thou yon shining river? On the other bank graze my flocks and herds. Precious are they beyond all telling, for their skins are of pure gold. Go, now, and fetch me one golden lock by sunset."

So saying, she signed to the nymphs to release Psyche, who went at once towards the stream, light-hearted; for this task, she thought, would be no hard one after the last.

As she approached the river she saw the cattle feeding on the further bank—sheep and oxen, cows and goats—their golden skins gleaming in the sunlight. Looking about for some means of crossing, she espied a small boat moored among the reeds. Entering it, she unloosed the rope and pushed out into the stream. As she did so, one of the bulls on the further shore looked up from his gazing and saw her. With a snort of rage he galloped down the field, followed by the rest of the herd. Right down to the water's edge they came, lashing their tails and goading with their horns, and an ill landing would it have been for Psyche had she reached the shore. Hastily she pushed back among the reeds, and pondered what she must do; but the more she [83] thought the darker grew her lot. To get one single hair from the golden herd she must cross the stream, and, if she crossed, the wild bulls would goad her to death. At length in despair she determined to meet her doom, if only to show that her love was stronger than death. As she bent over the boat to loose the rope, a light breeze set the reeds a-whispering, and one seemed to speak to her.


[Illustration]

SHE UNLOOSED THE ROPE AND PUSHED OUT INTO THE STREAM.

"Fair lady, leave us not, for those who reach the further shore return not to us again."

"Farewell, then, for ever, gentle reed, for I have a task to do, though I die in the vain attempt."

"Ah, lady, stay here and play with us. Too young and fair art thou to die."

"No coward is young or fair, kind reed. And before sunset I must win a lock from a golden fleece yonder, or I shall never find my love again."

And she let loose the rope.

"Stay, stay, gentle maiden. There I can help thee, for all my life have I watched the golden herds, and I know their ways. All day long they feed in the pleasant pasture, and woe to those who would cross over when the sun is high in heaven. But towards the evening, when he is sinking in the far west, the herdsman of Aphrodite cometh and driveth them home to their stalls for the night. Then mayest thou cross with safety and win a lock from the golden herd."

But Psyche laughed aloud at his words.

"Thou biddest me to steal the apples when the tree is bare. Thy heart is kind, O reed, but thy tongue lacketh wisdom. Fare thee well."

"Not so fast, lady. Seest thou not the tall ram [84] yonder by the thorn bush? Sweet grows the grass beneath its shade, yet to reach it he must leave a golden tribute on the thorns. Even now there is a lock of his fleece caught in the branches. Stay with us till the herds are gone, lady, and then canst thou win the lock of gold."

"O kindest of reeds, forgive my blindness. 'Tis more than my life thou has saved, for, with the task undone, I should lose my love for ever."

So all day long she stayed and talked with the reeds; and they told her that often folk came down to the stream and pushed out for the other bank. But when the cattle rushed raging to the water's edge they turned back afraid, and dared not venture forth again, but went home disconsolate. And so they heard not the whispering of the reeds nor learnt the secret of winning the golden lock.

Now the shadows were falling fast, and away in the distance Psyche heard the horn of the herdsman and his voice calling the cattle home. At the sound they lifted their heads, and made for the gate on the far side of the field. As soon as they were safely through, Psyche pushed out the boat and rowed to the other bank. Swiftly she made for the thorn-bush and picked the golden lock from the bough, and as the boat glided back to the reeds, the sun sank low behind the hills. Close at hand she heard the laughter of the nymphs as they came to see whether the task were done. With a smile she drew the lock of gold from her bosom, and, marvelling, they led her back to Aphrodite.

"Thou hast a brave heart, Psyche," said the goddess, as she looked at the golden lock at her feet.

[85] "The bravest heart could not have won this lock, lady, without knowing the secret which the reeds whispered to me."

"Well do I know that, Psyche. But 'tis only the pure in heart that can understand the voice of the wind in the reeds; and thus doubly have I tried thee. Take now this crystal bowl for thy third task. Beyond this pleasant vale thou wilt come to a dark and barren plain. On the far side a mighty mountain rears his peak to heaven, and from the summit a spring gushes forth and falls headlong over the precipice down into the gulf below. Go now and get me a draught of that stream, but see that thou break not the goblet on the way, for its worth is beyond telling."

In truth, as she held it out, the crystal gleamed brighter than the rainbow. Psyche took the goblet, and the first rays of the sun found her already on the plain. Far away on the other side the mountain-peak rose barren and black against the sky, and she hurried on as fast as her feet would go, lest night should fall ere she had filled the goblet. On and on she went, and at length she drew near to the mountain and looked about for a path leading up to the summit. But naught could she see save rocks and boulders and masses of crumbling stones, and there was nothing for it but to set to work to climb the rough mountain-side. Clasping the goblet tightly in one hand, she clung to the rocks as best she might with the other, fearing at every step that she would slip and break her precious burden. How she ever reached the top she never knew, but at length she stood, bruised and torn, upon the summit. What was her dismay [86] when she saw that the mountain-peak was divided by a mighty cleft, and across the abyss she saw the stream of water gushing out from the steep rock a hundred feet and more below the summit! Even had she toiled down again and up on the other side the rock fell away so smooth and sheer that a mountain-goat would have no ledge on which to rest his foot.

Psyche sat down upon a rock to think what she must do, and the more she thought the more she felt that her last hour had come.

"For the only way I can reach the water is to throw myself into the bottomless abyss, where the steam flows deep down into the bowels of the earth; and I should be dashed to pieces, but perchance the King of the Underworld would have mercy on me, and let my soul return but once on earth to bear the crystal bowl to Aphrodite."

So saying, she stood and bade farewell to the earth and the pleasant sunlight and the fair flowers that she loved, and prepared to throw herself over the mountain-side. As she was about to spring from the edge, she heard the whirring of wings above her head, and a mighty eagle flew down and settled on the rock beside her.

"Far up above thy head, in the blue sky, have I watched thee, Psyche, and seen thy labours on the mountain-side. Too brave and true art thou to go to thy death. Give me the goblet, and I will fill it. Knowest thou that yonder stream is a jet which springeth up from dark Cocytus, the River of Wailing, which watereth the shores of the dead? No mortal can touch of that water and live, or bear it away in a vessel of earth. But this goblet is the gift of Zeus almighty, and I am his mes- [87] senger—the only bird of heaven that can look on the sun in his might. Give me the cup, then, and I will fill it, and bear it to the mountain-foot, that thou mayest carry it back in safety."

With tears of joy and thankfulness Psyche gave him the goblet, and as he flew away across the dark chasm, swift as an arrow from the bow, she turned and sped down the mountain-side, heeding not the stones and boulders, so glad was she at heart. At the foot she found the eagle awaiting her.

"O mightiest of birds, how can I thank thee?" she cried.

"To have served thee, lady, is all the thanks I need. Farewell, and may the gods prosper thee in thy last great trial."

And he spread his mighty wings and flew away. Psyche watched him till he grew but a tiny speck in the blue sky. Then she turned and hastened across the plain with her precious goblet of water.

The nymphs danced out to meet her as before, and led her to Aphrodite.

"I see thou art fearless and true, maiden," she said, when Psyche told her tale. "Twice hast thou faced death without flinching, and now must thou go down to his own land; for no woman is worthy of my son's love, if she possess not beauty immortal that fadeth not with passing years. And she alone, the Queen of the Dead, can give thee this gift. Take this casket, then, and go and kneel before her and beg her to give thee therein the essence of that beauty. When thou hast it, see thou hasten swiftly back and open not the casket; for if its [88] fumes escape and overcome thee in the world below, thou must dwell for ever with the shades."

So Psyche took the casket, and her heart sank within her at the thought of that dread journey. And the nymphs waved sadly to her as she went away, for never yet had they looked on one who had returned from the dark land of shadows.


XI

Away from the pleasant vale went Psyche, for she knew full well that nowhere in that fair place could she find a way down to the world below. As a child, when she lived in her father's halls, her nurse had told her strange tales of dark and fearsome caves which men called the mouth of Hades, and how those who went down them never returned; or if one perchance, more favoured than the rest, came back into the sunlight, his face was pale and his strength departed, and he talked wildly of strange things that none could understand.

Far over the country-side she wandered and asked for the gate of Hades, and some pitied her weakness, and some laughed at her foolishness, and all men thought her mad.

"For beggar and king, for wise and foolish, the road to Hades is one," they said, "and all must travel it soon or late. If thou seekest it, in very sooth, go throw thyself from off yon lofty tower, and thou wilt find it fast enough."

Sadly she went and stood on the tower, for she knew no other way. Once again she bid farewell to the earth and the sunlight, and was about to leap from a pinnacle, [89] when she thought she heard a voice calling her by name, and she hushed her breath and listened.

"Psyche, Psyche," she heard, "why wilt thou pollute my stones with blood? I have done thee no wrong, yet thou wouldst make men hate me and shun the rock on which I stand. As for thee, it would avail thee nought, for thy soul would dwell for ever in the Kingdom of the Dead, and the shadow of thyself, faint and formless, would glide about my walls, and with thin-voiced wailing weep for thy lost love; men, hearing it, would flee from me, and for lack of the builder's care, my stones would fall asunder, and of all my proud beauty naught would be left, save a mound of moss-grown stones and thy spirit's mournful guardianship."

"Poor tower," she said, "I would not harm thee. Thou canst tell me, perchance, some better way, for I must bear this casket to the Queen of the Dead, and beg for a gift of beauty immortal, that I may return to the earth worthy of my lord."

"Hadst thou thrown thyself over the edge, thou wouldst never have come to the Queen of the Dead, but wailing and forlorn wouldst have wandered on the shores of the Land that has no name; for betwixt that land and Hades flows the wide Stygian stream. One boat there is that can cross it, and therein sits Charon, the ferryman of souls. Greedy of gain is he and hard of heart, and none will he take across who bear not a coin of gold in their mouths. And the pale ghosts of those who have died away from their loved ones, when none were by to pay the last rites of the dead and place the gold coin [90] in their mouths—all these flock wailing around him and beg him with heart-rending cries to take them over the stream. But to all their entreaties he turneth a deaf ear and beateth them back with his oar. E'en hadst thou prevailed on him and come to the palace of pale Persephone, thou couldst not have entered in; for at the gates sits Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hell, and none may pass him without a cake of barley-bread. But his soul loveth the taste of earth-grown corn, and while he devours it the giver may pass unscathed."

"The coin of gold and the barley-cake I can get," she said, "but how can I reach the Underworld alive I know not."

"Not far from hence thou wilt find the cave men call the Gate of Hades. In ignorance they name it, for no math hath proved where it leads. All the long years I have stood upon this rock have I watched the entrance to that cave, and men have come up and looked inside, and the boldest have entered it; but always have they come swiftly back, staggering like drunken men, with pale faces and wild eyes full of fear, and about them hangs the smell of noisome vapours that rise up from the gates of the dead; and the old wives sitting by the fireside nod their grey heads together. ' 'Tis the tale that our mothers told us long ago and their mothers before them,' they mutter. ' 'Tis surely the Gate of Hades, and those who venture too far will never come back again.' They have guessed aright, maiden, and down that dark cavern lies thy path."

"But if those who venture too far never return, how shall I bear back the essence of undying beauty in the casket?"

"Instead of one gold piece, take two, and two loaves [91] of fresh-baked barley bread. One gold coin to the ferryman and one loaf to the hound must thou give as thou goest, and keep the rest for thy return, and from greed they will let thee pass back again. Tie the casket in thy bosom, and put the gold coins in thy mouth, and take the barley-loaves one in each hand. See that thou set them not down, or the pale ghosts will snatch them away; for the taste of the earth-grown meal giveth a semblance of warmth to their cold forms, and for a brief space they feel once more the glow of life. So by many a wile will they seek to make thee set down the bread; but do thou answer them never a word, for he who toucheth or answereth one of these becometh even as they are."

"Psyche thanked him for his counsel, and went forth to beg the two gold coins and barley-loaves, and for love of her fair face the people gave it gladly. When all was ready, she set out towards the cave. About its mouth the brambles grew tall and thick, and the ivy hung down in long festoons, for none had ventured in for many a long year. As best she might, she cut a way through the prickly hedge, and stood in the shadow of the cave, and the drip of the water from the roof sent a faint echo through the vaults. Through the dark pools she went, through mud and through mire, and the green slime hung like a dank pall about the walls. On and on she hastened, till her head swam round and her heart turned sick within her; for round her floated a mist of poisonous vapour, which choked her and made her gasp for breath, and monstrous shapes swept past—the Furies and Harpies and hundred-headed beasts which guard the gate to Hades. Their cries and shrieks filled the air, [92] and every moment she shrank back, terrified that they would tear her limb from limb, as they bore down on her with the whirr of their mighty wings and their wild locks flying in the wind. Across the path they stood and waved her back, and her heart turned cold with fear; but she pressed onward with hurrying steps, and lo! when she came up to them the shapes clove asunder like mist before the sun, and she passed through them, and found they were but smoke.

And so she came to the nameless land that lies betwixt earth and Hades; a barren, boundless plain it is, with never a tree or shrub to break the dulness of its sad mud flats. Up and down it wander the shades of those whose bodies the kind earth has never covered, and they wring their hands and wail to their dear ones above, to grant them burial and the rites of the dead. For Charon, the grim ferryman, beats them back from his boat, because they have no coin, and they are doomed to dwell for ever in the land that has no name.

As she was crossing the dismal plain, an old man came towards her beating a laden ass. Old and weak was he, and could scarce stagger along by the side of the beast, and as he came up to Psyche the cords broke that bound the burden on the ass's back, and the faggots he carried were scattered all about. And he set up a dismal wailing, and wrung his pale withered hands.

"Gracious damsel, have mercy on an old man, and help me load my ass once more."

But Psyche remembered the words of the tower, and she clung the tighter to the loaves of bread, though she longed to help the feeble shade.

[95] Onward she went till she came to the banks of the Styx, the mighty river of Hell, by which the great gods swear. Nine times it winds its snaky coils about the shores of Hades, and across its leaden waters Charon, the boatman of the dead, ferries backward and forward for ever. When he saw Psyche, he hailed her, and asked for the coin. Answering him never a word, she held out one coin with her lips, and as he took it she shuddered. For his breath was as the north wind blowing across the snow, and his eyes were like a fish's, cold and dull.

"Welcome, sweet maiden. 'Tis not often we get a fare like thee, my boat and I;" and he laughed a hard, thin laugh, like the cracking of ice in a thaw, and beneath her weight the boat creaked in chorus.

Out into the stream he pushed with his pole, and then set to with his oar, and the rise and fall of the blade made never a sound in those dull leaden waters. As they neared the middle of the stream, Psyche saw two pale arms rise up above the waves, and the head of an old man, who cried out to her piteously,

"Help, help! I drown in this foul stream! Ah, for pity's sake put out one finger to save me!"


[Illustration]

"HELP, HELP! I DROWN IN THIS FOUL STREAM!"

And Psyche turned aside to hide her tears; for the face was the face of her father, and his cries pierced through to her heart. As the boat passed by he sank with a moan beneath the waves, and she saw him no more.

At length they reached the shore of Hades, and she saw three paths before her leading upwards from the landing stage. As she stood, not knowing which to take, the old man beckoned to her.

"I know not whither thou are bound, lady, for thou [96] bearest not on thee the mark of the dead. The souls of the wicked I know, for about them fly the Furies, the avengers of sin, and hound them down the left-hand path, through Periphlegethon, the river of fire—down, down to the utmost depths of Tartarus. And the souls of the brave shine forth like stars in the darkness, and they take the right hand path to the Elysian fields of light, where the breeze blows bright and fresh and the golden flowers are glowing. The middle path leadeth to the palace of pale Persephone, but that way only the gods and the children of the gods may go, or those who bear with them some token from the Immortals."

Then Psyche showed him Aphrodite's casket, and turned up the middle path. Through a dark wood she went, and came out upon a plain. Here she saw three aged women weaving at a loom, and they cried out to her in weak, quavering voices,

"Oh, maiden, thine eyes are young and thy fingers supple. Come help us unravel the thread."

But for the third time she turned aside, and went quickly on her way, and when she looked back over her shoulder the loom and the hags had vanished away.

So at length she came to the palace of Persephone. The roof and columns were all of pure silver, which shone with a pale light through the murk and gloom, like the shimmer of pale moonbeams on a cloudy night. Above the heads of the pillars ran a frieze of strange device. It told of Night and Chaos, and of the birth of Time, and how the sons Earth rose up against the gods in deadly battle, and were hurled into the depths of Tartarus by [97] the thunderbolts of Zeus. And it showed how Prometheus the Titan gave fire to mortal man, so that they learnt all manner of crafts, and became the masters of all living things, and like the gods for wisdom. But they ruled by the law of the strongest and said that might was right, and begat the foul forms of Pestilence and War and red-handed Murder. The other side told of the things that would come to pass when Time and Death should be no more, and Love should rule the universe. On that side all the forms were fair and all the faces beautiful, and the breeze played through pleasant places where the flowers never fade. In the centre of the pediment, with mighty wings overshadowing either side, stood a mighty figure, Anangke, great Necessity, the mother of gods and men. From one side she looked dark and terrible, and the world trembled at her frown, but from the other she was fairer than the day, and by unchanging law she drew all things after her till they should be perfected.

On the palace steps before the doorway sat Cerberus, the three-headed watch-dog. When he saw Psyche approaching he began to growl, and his growl was like the rattle of thunder far away. As she drew nearer he barked furiously and snarled at her, baring his white gleaming fangs. Quickly she threw him one of the barley loaves, and while he was devouring it, she slipped gently past, and stood within the courtyard of the palace. All was silent and deserted, and her footsteps, as they fell on the marble pavement, sent no echo through the colonnades; for it seemed that even sound must die in that lifeless air. She passed through great doors of bronze into a lofty [98] hall. In the shadowy depths of it she saw a great throne raised, and on it sat the Queen of the Dead. About her stood two handmaids, and their names were Memory and Sleep. One fanned her with great poppy-leaves, and as she did so the eyes of the queen grew heavy and dim, and she sat as one in a trance. But when this one grew weary of fanning, anon the other would hold up before her a great mirror of polished steel, and when she looked into it the colour would rush into her pale cheeks, and her eyes would glow like coals of fire, for in the flash of the steel she saw earth's flowery meadows, and remembered that for three moths only did she live in the gloom and the shade; and she knew, moreover, that one day the circling seasons would stay their course, and decay and death would pass away, and when that time came she would return no more to the murk and gloom, but dwell for ever in the sunshine and the flowers. A magic mirror is that which Memory holds, and few are there who can bear to look on its brightness, but those whose eyes are strong gaze into its depths, and learn that knowledge and remembrance are one.

With timid steps did Psyche cross the hall, and knelt upon the steps of the throne.

"Child of Earth, what dost thou here?", asked the queen. "This is no place for living souls."

"O mighty one, 'tis a boon I beg of thee," said Psyche, and drew from her bosom Aphrodite's casket. "Give me, I pray thee, the gift of undying beauty in this casket, that I may return above worthy of my lord."

" 'Tis a great boon thou askest. Nevertheless, for thy bravery's sake I will give it thee. For many are they [99] who set out to find it, but few have the heart to come so far."

Thereupon she took the casket in her hands, and breathed into it, and her breath was as the smoke of incense on the altar.

"Take it and return swiftly whence thou camest, and see thou open it not till thou comest upon earth. For in the land of the dead my breath is death, but above it is life and beauty immortal. Fare thee well."

With a glad heart Psyche rose from her knees, and sped through the silent palace. She threw the second loaf to Cerberus as she passed, and for the second coin of gold Charon took her once more across in his boat. This time no sad phantoms cried to her for help, and she knew that it was for the sake of the earth-grown meal that they had stood in her path before.

At last she stood once more in the sunlight, and joy lent wings to her feet as she sped across the plain and away to Aphrodite's pleasant vale. With the casket in her hand, she knelt before the throne, but Aphrodite put out her hand and raised her up.

"Kneel no more to me, Psyche, for now thou art one of us. But open the casket and drink into thy very soul the life and beauty that will never die."

Her smile was brighter than sunshine on the shimmering waves, and the touch of her hand made Psyche's blood run like fire through her veins. Scarce knowing what she did, she opened the casket. The fumes rose up in a cloud about her head, and she knew no more till she felt herself moving upwards, upwards. As life came slowly back she opened her eyes, and looked into the face of him she had [100] seen but once. His rainbow wings were spread above her, and his strong arms held her close, and he looked into her eyes with the look that mingles two souls into one.

"Beloved," he whispered, "Love has conquered all things. In thy darkest hour of trial I watched over thee, and gave thee strength, and now we two will dwell for ever in the courts of heaven, and teach the hearts of men to love as we love."


[Illustration]


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