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Children of the Dawn by  Elsie Finnimore Buckley


 

 

THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX

[1]

F AR away towards the east and the regions of the rising sun lies the fair lands of Hellas, a land famous from of old for mighty deeds of mighty men, and famous to this day among the nations of the earth; for though the mighty men, her heroes, have long since passed away, their names live on for ever in the pages of her grand old poets, who sing of their deeds in strains which still kindle the hearts of men, and stir them up to be heroes too, and fight life's battle bravely.

Long ago, in the city of Thebes, there ruled a king named Laius and his queen Iocasta. They were children of the gods, and Thebes itself, men said, had been built by hands more than mortal; for Apollo had led Cadmus the Phœnician, the son of Zeus, to the sacred spot where he was to raise the citadel of Thebes, and Pallas Athene [2] had helped him to slay the monstrous dragon that guarded the sacred spring of Ares. The teeth of the dragon, Cadmus took and planted in the plain of Thebes, and from this seed there sprang up a great host of armed men, who would have slain him; but he took a stone and cast it in their midst, whereupon the serpent-men turned their arms one against another, fighting up and down the plain till only five were left. With the help of these five, Cadmus built the citadel of Thebes, and round it made a wall so wide that a dozen men and more might walk upon it, and so huge were the stones and so strong was the masonry that parts of it are standing to this day. As for the city itself, the tale goes that Amphion, the mightiest of all musicians, came with his lyre, and so sweetly did he play that the hearts of the very stones were stirred within them, so that of their own free-will they fell into their places, and the town of Thebes rose up beneath the shadow of the citadel.

For many a long day did Laius and Iocasta rule over the people of Thebes, and all that time they had no children; for a dreadful curse lay on the head of Laius that, if ever he had a son, by that son's hand he should die. At last a boy was born to them, and Laius, remembering the curse, swore that the child should never grow to manhood, and he bade Iocasta slay him forthwith. But she, being his mother, was filled with a great love and pity for the helpless child. When it nestled in her arms and clung to her breast she could not find it in her heart to slay it, and she wept over it many a bitter salt tear, and pressed it closer to her bosom. As the tiny fingers closed round hers, and the soft head pressed against her, she murmured, [3] "Surely, so little a thing can do no harm? Sweet babe, they say that I must kill thee, but they know not a mother's love. Rather than that, I will put thee away out of my sight, and never see thee more, though the gods know I had sooner die than lose thee, my little one, my own sweet babe."

So she called a trusty house-slave, who knew the king's decree, and placing the child in his arms, she said,

"Go, take it away, and hide it in the hills. Perchance the gods will have pity on it, and put it in the heart of some shepherd, who feeds his flocks on distant pastures, to take the child home to his cot and rear it. Farewell, my pretty babe. The green grass must be thy cradle, and the mountain breezes must lull thee to sleep. May the gods in their mercy bless thy childhood's hours, and make thy name famous among men; for thou art a king's son, and a child of the Immortals, and the Immortals forget not those that are born of their blood."

So the man took the child from Iocasta; but, because he feared the king's decree, he pierced its ankles and bound them together, for he thought

"Surely, even if some shepherd wandering on the mountain-side should light upon the child, he will never rear one so maimed; and if the king should ask, I will say that he is dead."

But because the child wept for the pain in its ankles, he took it home first to his wife to be fed and comforted, and when she gave it back into his arms, it smiled up into his face. Then all the hardness died out of his heart, for the gods had shed about it a grace to kindle love in the coldest breast.

[4] Now Cithæron lies midway between Thebes and Corinth, and in winter-time the snow lies deep upon the summit, and the wild winds shriek through the rocks and clefts, and the pine-trees pitch and bend beneath the fury of the blast, so that men called it the home of the Furies, the Awful Goddesses, who track out sin and murder. And there, too, in the streams and caverns, dwell the naiads and the nymphs, wild spirits of the rocks and waters; and if any mortal trespass on their haunts, they drive him to madness in their echoing grottoes and gloomy caves. Yet, for all that, though men called it dark Cithæron, the grass about its feet grew fine and green, so that the shepherds came from all the neighbouring towns to pasture their flocks on its well-watered slopes. Here it was that Laius's herdsman fell in with a herdsman of Polybus, king of Corinth, and, seeing that he was a kindly man, and likely to have compassion on the child, he gave it to him to rear.

Now, it had not pleased the gods to grant any children to Polybus, king of Corinth, and Merope, his wife, though they wreathed their altars with garlands and burnt sweet savour of incense; and at last all hope died out of their hearts, and they said,

"The gods are angry, and will destroy our race, and the kingdom shall pass into the hands of a stranger."

But one day it chanced that the queen saw in the arms of one of her women a child she had not seen before, and she questioned her, and asked if it were hers. And the woman confessed that her husband, the king's herdsman, had found it on dim Cithæron, and had taken pity on it, and brought it home. Then the queen looked at the child, and seeing that it was passing fair, she said,

[5] "Surely this is no common babe, but a child of the Immortals. His hair is golden as the summer corn, and his eyes like the stars in heaven. What if the gods have sent him to comfort our old age, and rule the kingdom when we are dead? I will rear him in the palace as my own son, and he shall be a prince in the land of Corinth."

So the child lived in the palace, and became a son to Polybus and Merope, and heir to the kingdom. For want of a name they called him Œdipus, because his ankles, when they found him, were all swollen by the pin that the herdsman had put through them. As he grew up, he found favour in all men's eyes, for he was tall and comely and cunning withal.

"The gods are gracious," men said, "to grant the king such a son, and the people of Corinth so mighty a prince, to rule over them in days to come."

For as yet they knew not that he was a foundling, and no true heir to the throne.

Now, while the child was still young, he played about the courts of the palace, and in running and leaping and in feats of strength and hardihood of heart there was none to beat him among his playmates, or even to stand up against him, save one. But so well matched were these two, that the other children would gather round them in a ring to watch them box and wrestle, and the victor they would carry on their shoulders round the echoing galleries with shouting and clapping of hands; and sometimes it was Œdipus, and sometimes the other lad. But at length there came a time when again and again Œdipus was proved the stronger, and again and again the other slunk home beaten, like a cur that has been whipped; [6] and he brooded over his defeat, and nourished hatred in his heart against Œdipus, and vowed that one day he would have his revenge by fair means or by foul.

But when Merope the queen saw Œdipus growing tall and fair, and surpassing all his comrades in strength, she took him up one day on to the citadel, and showed him all the lovely land of Hellas lying at his feet. Below them spread the shining city, with its colonnades and fountains and stately temples of the gods, like some jewel in the golden sands, and far away to the westward stretched the blue Corinthian Gulf, till the mountains of Ætolia seemed to join hands with their sisters in Peloponnese. And she showed him the hills of Arcadia, the land of song and shepherds, where Pan plays his pipe beneath the oak-trees, and nymphs and satyrs dance all the day long. Away to the bleak north-west stood out the snowy peaks of Mount Parnassus and Helicon, the home of the Muses, who fill men's minds with wisdom and their hearts with the love of all things beautiful. Here the first narcissus blooms, and the olive and the myrtle and rosy almond-blossom gently kiss the laughing rivulets and the shining, dancing cascades. For Helicon was a fair and gentle youth whom his cruel brother Cithæron slew in his mad jealousy. Whereupon the gods changed them both into mountains, and Helicon is mild and fair to this day, and the home of all good things; but Cithæron is bleak and barren, because his hard heart had no pity, and the Furies haunt it unceasingly. Then Merope turned him to the eastward and the land of the Dawning Day, and showed him the purple peaks of Ægina and the gleaming Attic shore. And she said to him, [7] "Œdipus, my son, seest thou how Corinth lies midway 'twixt north and south and east and west, a link to join the lands together and a barrier to separate the seas?"

And Œdipus answered,

"Of a truth, mother, he who rules in Corinth hath need of a lion's heart, for he must stand ever sword in hand and guard the passage from north to south."

"Courage is a mighty thing, my son, but wisdom is mightier. The sword layeth low, but wisdom buildeth up. Seest thou the harbours on either side, facing east and west, and the masts of the ships, like a forest in winter, and the traffic of sailors and merchants on the shore? From all lands they come and bring their wares and merchandise, and men of every nation meet together. Think not, my son, that a lion's heart and a fool's head therewith can ever be a match for the wisdom of Egypt or the cunning of Phœnicia."

Then Œdipus understood, and said,

"Till now I have wrestled and boxed and run races with my fellows on the sands the livelong day, and none can beat me. Henceforth I will sit in the market-place and discourse with foreigners and learned men, so that, when I come to rule in my father's place, I may be the wisest in all the land."

And Merope was pleased by his answer, but in her heart she was sad that his simple childish days were past; and she prayed that if the gods granted him wisdom they would keep his heart pure and free from all uncleanness.

So Œdipus sat in the market-place and talked with merchants and travellers, and he went down to the ships in the harbour and learned many strange things of strange [8] lands—the wisdom of the Egyptians, who were the wisest of all men in the south, and the cunning of the Phœnicians, who were the greatest merchants and sailors in all the world. But in the evening, when the sun was low in the west, and the hills all turned to amethyst and sapphire, and the snow-mountains blushed ruby red beneath his parting kiss, then along the smooth, gold sands of the Isthmus, by the side of the sounding sea, he would box and wrestle and run, till all the ways were darkened and the stars stood out in the sky. For he was a true son of Hellas, and knew that nine times out of every ten a slack body and a slack mind go together.

So he grew up in his beauty, a very god for wisdom and might, and there was no question he could not answer nor riddle he could not solve, so that all the land looked up to him, and the king and queen loved him as their own son.

Now one day there was a great banquet in the palace, to which all the noblest of the land were bidden, and the minstrels played and the tumblers danced and the wine flowed freely round the board, so that men's hearts were opened, and they talked of great deeds and heroes, and boasted what they themselves could do. And Œdipus boasted as loud as any, and challenged one and all to meet him in fair fight. But the youth who had grown up with him in rivalry, and nourished jealousy and hatred in his heart, taunted him to his face, and said,

"Base born that thou art, and son of slave, thinkest thou that free men will fight with thee? Lions fight not with curs, and though thou clothe thyself with purple and gold, all men know that thou art no true son to him thou callest thy sire."

[9] And this he said being flushed with wine, and because myriad-mouthed Rumour had spread abroad the tale that Œdipus was a foundling, though he himself knew nought thereof.

Then Œdipus flushed red with rage, and swift as a gale that sweeps down from the mountains he fell upon the other, and seizing him by the throat, he shook him till he had not breath to beg for mercy.

"What sayest thou now, thou whelp? Begone with thy lying taunt, now that thou hast licked the dust for thy falsehood."

And he flung him out from the hall. But Merope leant pale and sad against a pillar, and veiled her face in her mantle to hide her tears. And when they were alone, Œdipus took her hand and stroked it, and said,

"Grieve not for my fiery spirit, mother, but call me thine own son, and say that I was right to silence the liar who would cast dishonour upon my father's name and upon thee?"

But she looked at him sadly and longingly through her tears, and spoke in riddling words,

"The gods, my child, sent thee to thy father and to me in answer to our prayers. A gift of God thou art, and a gift of God thou shalt be, living and dead, to them that love thee. The flesh groweth old and withereth away as a leaf, but the spirit liveth on for ever, and those are the truest of kin who are kin in the spirit of goodness and of love."

But Œdipus was troubled, for she would say no more, but only held his hand, and when he drew it away it was wet with her tears. Then he thought in his heart,

[10] "Verily, my mother would not weep for nought. What if, after all, there be something in the tale? I will go to the central shrine of Hellas and ask the god of Truth, golden-haired Apollo. If he say it is a lie, verily I will thrust it back down that coward's throat, and the whole land shall ring with his infamy. And if it be true—the gods will guide me how to act."

So he set forth alone upon his pilgrimage. And he took the road that runs by the side of the sea and up past Mount Gerania, with its pine-clad slopes, where Megarus, the son of Zeus, took refuge, when the floods covered all the land and only the mountain-tops stood out like islands in the sea. For he followed the cry of the cranes as they sought refuge from the waters, and was saved, and founded the city of Megara, which is called by his name to this day. Right past Ægosthena—the home of the black-footed goats—went Œdipus to Creusis, along the narrow rocky path between the mountains and the sea, where a man must needs be sure of foot and steady of head, if he is to stand against the storms that seep down from bleak Cithæron. For the winds rush shrieking down the hills like Furies in their wrath, and they sweep all that stands in their way over the beetling cliffs into the yawning, seething gulf below, and those that fall into her ravening jaws she devours like some wild beast, and they are seen no more. Then he went through fertile Thisbe past the little port of Tipha, the home of Tiphys, helmsman of the famous Argonauts, who sailed to nameless lands and unknown seas in their search for the Golden Fleece. And many a roaring torrent did he cross, as it rushed foaming down from the steep white cliffs of [11] Helicon, and over pathless mountains, past rocky Antieyra and the hills of hellebore, and through the barren plain of Cirrha, till he came to rock-built Crisa and the fair Crisean plain, the land of cornfields and vineyards and the grey-green olive-groves, where in spring-time the pomegranate and oleander flowers shine out red as beacon-fires by night.

There he had well-nigh reached his journey's end, and his heart beat fast as he mingled with the band of pilgrims, each bound on his different quest to the god of Light and Truth, golden-haired Apollo, the mightiest of the sons of Zeus and the slayer of Pytho, the famous dragon. At Delphi is his shrine and dwelling-place, and there within his temple stands the sacred stone which fell from heaven and marks the centre of the earth. A great gulf yawns beneath, a mighty fissure going deep down into the bowels of the earth to the regions of the dead and the land of endless night; and deadly fumes rise up and noxious mists and vapours, so that the Pythian priestess, who sits above on her brazen tripod, is driven to frenzy by their power. Then it is that she hears the voice of Apollo, and her eyes are opened to see what no mortal can see, and her ears to hear the secrets of the gods and Fate. Those things which Apollo bids her she chants to the pilgrims in mystic verse, which only the wise can interpret aright. So from north and south and east and west men flocked to hear her prophecies, and the fame of Apollo's shrine went out through every land$#8212from Ocean's stream and the Pillars of Heracles to the far Ionian shore and Euphrates, the mighty river of the East.

Œdipus drew near to the sacred place and made due [12] sacrifice, and washing in the great stone basin, and put away all uncleaness from his heart, and went through the portals of rock to the awful shrine within, where the undying fire burns night and day and the sacred laurel stands. And he put his question to the god and waited for an answer. Through the dim darkness of the shrine he saw the priestess on her tripod, veiled in a mist of incense and vapour, and as the power of the god came upon her she beheld the things of the future and the hidden secrets of Fate. And she raised her hand towards Œdipus, and with pale lips spoke the words of doom,

"Œdipus, ill-fated, thine own sire shalt thou slay."

As she spoke the words his head swam round like a whirlpool, and his heart seemed turned to stone; then, with a loud and bitter cry, he rushed from the temple, through the thronging crowd of pilgrims down into the Sacred Way, and the people moved out of his path like shadows. Blindly he sped along the stony road, down through the pass to a place where three roads meet, and he shuddered as he crossed them; for Fear laid her cold hand upon his heart and filled it with a wild, unreasoning dread, and branded the image of that awful spot upon his brain so that he could never forget it. On every side the mountains frowned down upon him, and seemed to echo to and fro the doom which the priestess had spoken. Straight forward he went like some hunted thing, turning neither to right nor left, till he came to a narrow path, where he met an old man in a chariot drawn by mules, with his trusty servants round him.

"Ho! there, thou madman!" they shouted; "stand by and let the chariot pass."

[13] "Madmen yourselves," he cried, for his sore heart could not brook the taunt. "I am a king's son, and will stand aside for no man."

So he tried to push past them by force, though he was one against many. And the old man stretched out his hand as though to stop him, but as well might a child hope to stand up against a wild bull. For he thrust him aside and felled him from his seat, and turned upon his followers, and, striking out to right and left, he stunned one and slew another, and forced his way through in blind fury. But the old man lay stiff and still upon the road. The fall from the chariot had quenched the feeble spark of life within him, and his spirit fled away to the house of Hades and the kingdom of the Dead. One trusty servant lay slain by his side, and the other senseless and stunned, and when he awoke, to find his master and his comrades slain, Œdipus was far upon his way.

On and on he went, over hill and dale and mountain-stream, [mountainstream?] till at length his strength gave way, and he sank down exhausted. And black despair laid hold of his heart, and he said within himself,

"Better to die here on the bare hill-side and be food for the kites and crows than return to my father's house to bring death to him and sorrow to my mother's heart."

But sweet sleep fell upon him, and when he awoke hope and the love of life put other thoughts in his breast. And he remembered the words which Merope the queen had spoken to him one day when he was boasting of his strength and skill.

"Strength and skill, my son, are the gifts of the gods, as the rain which falleth from heaven and giveth life and [14] increase to the fruits of the earth. But man's pride is an angry flood that bringeth destruction on field and city. Remember that great gifts may work great good or great evil, and he who has them must answer to the gods below if he use them well or ill."

And he thought within himself,

" 'Twere, ill to die if, even in the uttermost parts of the earth, men need a strong man's arm and a wise man's cunning. Never more will I return to far-famed Corinth and my home by the sounding sea, but to far-distant lands will I go and bring blessing to those who are not of my kin, since to mine own folk I must be a curse if ever I return."

So he went along the road from Delphi till he came to seven-gated Thebes. There he found all the people in deep distress and mourning, for their king Laius was dead, slain by robbers on the high road, and they had buried him far from his native land at a place where three roads meet. And, worse still, their city was beset by a terrible monster, the Sphinx, part eagle and part lion, with the face of a woman, who every day devoured a man because they could not answer the riddle she set them. All this Œdipus heard as he stood in the market-place and talked with the people.

"What is this famous riddle that none can solve?" he asked.

"Alas! young man, that none can say. For he that would solve the riddle must go up alone to the rock where she sits. Then and there she chants the riddle, and if he answer it not forthwith she tears him limb from limb. And if none go up to try the riddle, then she swoops down [15] upon the city and carries off her victims, and spares not woman or child. Our wisest and bravest have gone up, and our eyes have seen them no more. Now there is no man left who dare face the terrible beast."

Then Œdipus said,

"I will go up and face this monster. It must be a hard riddle indeed if I cannot answer it."

"Oh, overbold and rash," they cried, "thinkest thou to succeed where so many have failed?"

"Better to try, and fail, than never to try at all."

"Yet, where failure is death, surely a man should think twice?"

"A man can die but once, and how better than in trying to save his fellows?"

As they looked at his strong young limbs and his fair young face they pitied him.

"Stranger," they said, "who art thou to throw away thy life thus heedlessly? Are there none at home to mourn thee and no kingdom thou shouldst rule? For, of a truth, thou art a king's son and no common man."

"Nay, were I to return, my home would be plunged in mourning and woe, and the people would drive me from my father's house."

They marvelled at his answer, but dared question him no further; and, seeing that nothing would turn him from his purpose, they showed him the path to the Sphinx's rock, and all the people went out with him to the gate with prayers and blessings. At the gate they left him, for he who goes up to face the Sphinx must go alone, and none can stand by and help him. So he went through the Crenean gate and across the stream of Dirce into the [16] wide plain, and the mountain of the Sphinx stood out dark and clear on the other side. Then he prayed to Pallas Athene, the grey-eyed goddess of Wisdom, and she took all fear from his heart. So he went up boldly to the rock, where the monster sat waiting to spring upon her prey; yet for all his courage his heart beat fast as he looked on her. For at first she appeared like a mighty bird, with great wings of bronze and gold, and the glancing sunbeams played about them, casting a halo of light around, and in the midst of the halo her face shone out pale and beautiful as a star at dawn. But when she saw him coming near, a greedy fire lit up her eyes, and she put out her cruel claws and lashed her tail from side to side like an angry lion waiting for his prey. Nevertheless, Œdipus spoke to her fair and softly.


[Illustration]

SHE PUT OUT HER CRUEL CLAWS AND LASHED HER TAIL FROM SIDE TO SIDE LIKE AN ANGRY LION WAITING FOR HIS PREY.

"Oh, lady, I am come to hear thy famous riddle and answer it or die."

"Foolhardy manling, a dainty morsel the gods have sent this day, with thy fair young face and fresh young limbs."

And she licked her cruel lips.

Then Œdipus felt his blood boil within him, and he wished to slay her then and there; for she who had been the fairest of woman was now the foulest of beasts, and he saw that by her cruelty and lust she had killed the woman's soul within her, and the soul of a beast had taken its place.

"Come, tell me thy famous riddle, foul Fury that thou art, that I may answer it and rid the land of this curse."

"At dawn it creeps on four legs; at noon it strides on [19] two; at sunset and evening it totters on three. What is this thing, never the same, yet not many, but one?"

So she chanted slowly, and her eyes gleamed cruel and cold.

Then thought Œdipus within himself,

"Now or never must my learning and wit stand me in good stead, or in vain have I talked with the wisest of men and learnt the secrets of Phœnicia and Egypt."

And the gods who had given him understanding sent light into his heart, and boldly he answered,

"What can this creature be but man, O Sphinx? For, a helpless babe at the dawn of life, he crawls on his hands and feet; at noontide he walks erect in the strength of his manhood; and at evening he supports his tottering limbs with a staff, the prop and stay of old age. Have I not answered aright and guessed thy famous riddle?"

Then with a loud cry of despair, and answering him never a word, the great beast sprang up from her seat on the rock and hurled herself over the precipice into the yawning gulf beneath. Far away across the plain the people heard her cry, and they saw the flash of the sun on her brazen wings like a gleam of lightning in the summer sky. Thereupon they sent up a great shout of joy to heaven, and poured out from every gate into the open plain, and some raised Œdipus upon their shoulders, and with shouts and songs of triumph bore him to the city. Then and there they made him king with one accord, for the old king had left no son behind him, and who more fitted to rule over them than the slayer of the Sphinx and the saviour of their city?

So Œdipus became king of Thebes, and wisely and [20] well did he rule, and for many a long year the land prospered both in peace and war. But the day came when a terrible pestilence broke out, and the people died by hundreds, so that at last Œdipus sent messengers to Delphi to ask why the gods were angry and had sent a plague upon the land. And this was the answer they brought back,

"There is an unclean thing in Thebes. Never has the murderer of Laius been found, and he dwells a pollution in the land. Though the vengeance of the gods is slow, yet it cometh without fail, and the shedding of blood shall not pass unpunished."

Then Œdipus made proclamation through the land that if any man knew who the murderer was, they should give him up to his doom and appease the anger of Heaven. And he laid a terrible curse on any who dared to give so much as a crust of bread or a draught of water to him who had brought such suffering on the land. So throughout the country far and wide a search was made to track out the stain of blood and cleanse the city from pollution, but day after day the quest was fruitless, and the pestilence raged unceasingly, and darkness fell upon the soul of the people, as their prayers remained unanswered and their burnt-offerings smoked in vain upon the altars of the gods. Then at last Œdipus sent for the blind seer Teiresias, who had lived through six generations of mortal men, and was the wisest of all prophets on earth. He knew the language of birds, and, though his eyes were closed in darkness, his ears were opened to hear the secrets of the universe, and he knew the hidden things of the past and of the future. But at first when he [21] came before the king he would tell him nothing, but begged him to question no further.

"For the things of the future will come of themselves," he cried, "though I shroud them in silence, and evil will it be for thee, O king, and evil for thine house if I speak out the knowledge that is hidden in my heart."

At last Œdipus grew angry at his silence, and taunted him,

"Verily, methinks thou thyself didst aid in the plotting of this deed, seeing that thou carest nought for the people bowed down beneath the pestilence and the dark days that are fallen on the land, so be it thou canst shield the murderer and escape thyself from the curse of the gods."

Then Teiresias was stung past bearing, and would hold his tongue no longer. "By thine own doom shalt thou be judged, O king," he said. "Thou thyself art the murderer, thyself the pollution that staineth the land with the blood of innocent men."

Then Œdipus laughed aloud,

"Verily, old man, thou pratest. What rival hath urged thee to this lie, hoping to drive me from the throne of Thebes? Of a truth, not thine eyes only, but thy heart, is shrouded in a mist of darkness."

"Woe to thee, Œdipus, woe to thee! Thou hast sight, yet seest not who thou art, nor knowest the deed of thine hand. Soon shalt thou wander sightless and blind, a stranger in a strange land, feeling the ground with a staff, and men shall shrink back from thee in horror when they hear thy name and the deed that thou hast done."

And the people were hushed by the words of the old man, and knew not what to think. But the wife of Œdipus, who stood by his side, said,

"Hearken not to him, my lord. For verily no mortal can search the secrets of Fate, as I can prove full well by the words of this same man that he spoke in prophecy. For he it was who said that Laius, the king who is dead, should be slain by the hand of his own son. However, that poor innocent never grew to manhood, but was exposed on the trackless mountain-side to die of cold and hunger; and Laius, men say, was slain by robber bands at a place where three roads meet. So hearken not to seer-craft, ye people, nor trust in the words of one who is proved a false prophet."

But her words brought no comfort to Œdipus, and a dreadful fear came into his heart, like a cold, creeping snake, as he listened. For he thought of his journey from Delphi, and of how in his frenzy he had struck down an old man and his followers at a place where three roads meet. When he questioned her further, the time and the place and the company all tallied, save only that rumour had it that Laius had been slain by robber bands, whilst he had been single-handed against many.

"Was there none left," he asked, "who saw the deed and lived to tell the tale?"

"Yea, one faithful follower returned to bear the news, but so soon as the Sphinx was slain and the people had made thee king he went into distant pastures with his flocks, for he could not brook to see a stranger in his master's place, albeit he had saved the land from woe."

"Go, summon him," said Œdipus. "If the murderers [23] were many, as rumour saith, with his aid we may track them out; but if he was one man single-handed—yea, though that man were myself—of a truth he shall be an outcast from the land, that the plague may be stayed from the people. Verily, my queen, my heart misgives me when I remember my wrath and the deed that I wrought at the cross-roads."

In vain she tried to comfort him, for a nameless fear had laid hold of his heart.

Now, while they were waiting for the herdsman to come, a messenger arrived in haste from Corinth to say that Polybus was dead, and that Œdipus was chosen king of the land, for his fame had gone out far and wide as the slayer of the Sphinx and the wisest of the kings of Hellas. When Œdipus heard the news, he bowed his head in sorrow to hear of the death of the father he had loved, and turning to the messenger, he said,

"For many a long year my heart hath yearned toward him who is dead, and verily my soul is grieved that I shall see him no more in the pleasant light of the sun. But for the oracle's sake I stayed in exile, that my hand might not be red with a father's blood. And now I thank the gods that he has passed away in a green old age, in the fulness of years and of honour."

But the messenger wondered at his words.

"Knewest thou not, then, that Polybus was no father to thee in the flesh, but that for thy beauty and thy strength he chose thee out of all the land to be a son to him and heir to the kingdom of Corinth?"

What sayest thou, bearer of ill news that thou art?" cried Œdipus. "To prove that same tale of thine a [24] slanderous lie I went to Delphi, and there the priestess prophesied that I should slay my own sire. Wherefore I went not back to my native land, but have I lived in exile all my days."

"Then in darkness of soul hast thou lived, O king. For with mine own hands I received thee as a babe from a shepherd on dim Cithæron, from one of the herdsmen of Laius, who was king before thee in this land."

"Woe is me, then! The curse of the gods is over me yet. I know not my sire, and unwittingly I may slay him and rue the evil day. And a cloud of darkness hangeth over me for the slaying of King Laius. But lo! they bring the herdsman who saw the deed done, and pray Heaven he may clear me from all guilt. Bring him forward that I may question him."

Then they brought the man forward before the king, though he shrank back and tried to hide himself. When the messenger from Corinth saw him he started back in surprise, for it was the very man from whose hands he had taken Œdipus on the mountain-side. And he said to the king,

"Behold the man who will tell thee the secret of thy birth. From his hands did I take thee as a babe on dim Cithæron."

Then Œdipus questioned the man, and at first he denied it from fear, but at last he was fain to confess.

"And who gave me to thee to slay on the barren mountain-side?"

"I pray thee, my king, ask me no more. Some things there are that are better unsaid."

"Nay, tell me, and fear not. I care not if I am a [25] child of shame and slavery stains my birth. A son of Fortune the gods have made me, and have given me good days with the evil. Speak out, I pray thee. Though I be the son of a slave, I can bear it."

"No son of a slave art thou, but seed of a royal house. Ask me no more, my king."

"Speak, speak, man. Thou drivest me to anger, and I will make thee tell, though it be by force."

"Ah! lay not cruel hands upon me. For thine own sake I would hide it. From the queen thy mother I had thee, and thy father was—Laius the king. At the cross-roads from Delphi didst thou meet him in his chariot, and slew him unwittingly in thy wrath. Ah, woe is me! For the gods have chosen me out to be an unwilling witness to the truth of their oracles."

Then a great hush fell upon all the people like the lull before a storm. For the words of the herdsman were so strange and terrible that at first they could scarce take in their meaning. But when they understood that Œdipus was Laius's own son, and that he had fulfilled the dreadful prophecy and slain his sire, a great tumult arose, some saying one thing and some another; but the voice of Œdipus was heard above the uproar,

"Ah, woe is me, woe is me! The curse of the gods is upon me, and none can escape their wrath. Blindly have I done this evil, and when I was striving to escape Fate caught me in her hidden meshes. Oh, foolish hearts of men, to think that ye can flee from the doom of the gods; for lo! ye strive in the dark, and your very struggles bind you but closer in the snare of your fate. Cast me from the land, ye people; do with me what ye will. For [26] the gods have made me a curse and a pollution and by my death alone will the land have rest from the pestilence."

And the people would have taken him at his word; for fickle is the heart of the multitude, and swayed this way and that by every breath of calamity. They were sore stricken, too, by the pestilence, and in their wrath against the cause of it they forgot the slaying of the Sphinx and the long days of peace and prosperity. But the blind seer Teiresias rose up in their midst, and at his voice the people were silent.

"Citizens of Cadmus, foolish and blind of heart! Will ye slay the saviour of your city? Have ye forgotten the man-devouring Sphinx and the days of darkness? Verily prosperity blunteth the edge of gratitude. And thou, Œdipus, cue not the gods for thine evil fate. He that putteth his finger in the fire is burnt, whether he do it knowingly or not. As to thy sire, him indeed didst thou slay in ignorance; but the shedding of man's blood be upon thine own head, for that was the fruit of thy wrathful spirit, which, through, lack of curbing, broke forth like an angry beast. Hadst thou never slain a man, never wouldst thou have slain thy sire. But now thou are a pollution to the land of thy birth, and by long exile and wandering must thou expiate thy sin and die a stranger in a strange land. Yet methinks that in the dark mirror of prophecy I see thy form, as it were, a guardian to the land of thy last resting-place, and in a grove of sacred trees thy spirit's lasting habitation, when thy feet have accomplished the ways of expiation and the days of thy wandering are done."

So the people were silenced. But Œdipus would not [27] be comforted, and in his shame and misery he put out his own eyes because he had looked on unspeakable things. Then he clothed himself in rags and took a pilgrim's staff, to go forth alone upon his wanderings. And the people were glad at his going, because the plague had hardened their hearts, and they cared nothing for his grey hairs and sightless eyes, nor remembered all he had done for them, but thought only how the plague might be stayed. Even Eteocles and Polyneices, his own sons, showed no pity, but would have let him go forth alone, that they might live on the fatness of the land. For their hardness of heart they were punished long after, when they quarrelled as to which should be king, and brought down the flood of war upon Thebes, and fell each by the other's hand in deadly strife. Of all his children, Antigone alone refused to let him go forth a solitary wanderer, and would listen to none of his entreaties when he spoke of the hardness of the way that would lie before them.

"Nay, father," she cried; "thinkest thou that I could suffer thee to wander sightless and blind in thine old age with none to stay thy feeble steps or lend thee the light of their eyes?"

"The road before us is hard and long, my child, and no man can say when my soul shall find rest. The ways of the world are cruel, and men love not the cursed of the gods. As for thee, Heaven bless thee for thy love; but thou art too frail and tender a thing to eat of the bread and drink of the waters of sorrow."

"Ah, father, thinkest thou that aught could be more bitter than to sit in the seat of kings whilst thou wanderest [28] a beggar on the face of the earth? Nay, suffer me to go with thee, and stay thy steps in the days of thy trial."

Nothing he could say would dissuade her. So they two set out alone upon their wanderings, the old man bowed down beneath the weight of sorrow, and the young girl in the freshness of youth and beauty, with a great love in her heart—a bright, burning love which was the light by which she lived, and a light which never led her astray. For love guided her into desolate places and through many a pathless wilderness, and at length brought her in the flower of her maidenhood to the very gates of death; yet when the cloud of earthly sorrow hung darkest over her head, love it was that lifted the veil of doubt, and cast about her name a halo of glory that will never fade. And all the story of her love and how she buried her brother Polyneices, though she knew it was death to cast so much as a handful of dust upon his body, you may read in one of the noblest plays that has ever been written.

So she and Œdipus set out upon their wanderings. At first Œdipus was filled with shame and bitterness, and cursed the day of his birth and his evil fate; but as time went on he remembered the words of Teiresias—how at his death he should be a blessing to the land of his last resting-place; and the hope sprang up in his heart that the gods had not forsaken him, but would wipe out the stain of his sin, and make his name once more glorious among men. Daily this hope grew stronger and brighter, and he felt that the days of wandering and expiation were drawing to a close, and a mysterious power guided his steps he knew not whither, except that it was towards [29] the goal of his release. So they wandered on across the Theban plain and over dim Cith&aeolig;ron, till they came to the torch-lit strand of Eleusis and Demeter's sacred shrine, and the broad plain of Rarus, where Triptolemus first taught men to drive a furrow and sow the golden grain. And they went along the Sacred Way which leads to Athens, with the circling mountains on their left, and to the right the blue Saronic Gulf and the peaks of sea-girt Salamis. And many a hero's grave did they pass and many a sacred shrine, for all along that road men of old raised monuments to the undying glory of the dead and and the heritage of honour which they left to unborn generations. And always Antigone tended the old man's feeble steps, and lent him the light of her young eyes, till at length they came to white Colonus and the grove of the Eumenides. There she set him on a rock to rest his weary limbs. And the soft waters of Cephisus flowed sparkling at their feet to the fertile plain below. In the dark coverts and green glades the nightengale trilled her sweet song, and the grass was bright with many a golden crocus and white narcissus bloom. As he sat there a great calm filled the old man's heart, for he felt that the days of his wandering were done. But while they were resting a man from the village happened to pass, and when he saw them he shouted out,

"Ho! there, impious wanderers, know ye not that ye sit on sacred land and trespass on hallowed ground?"

Then Œdipus knew more surely than ever that the day of his release had come.

"Oh, stranger!" he cried, "welcome is that which [30] thou sayest. For here shall the words of the prophet be fulfilled, when he said that in a grove of sacred trees my spirit should find rest."

But the man was not satisfied, and he called to a band of his countrymen who were in the fields close by. And they came up and spoke roughly to Œdipus, and they asked his name and business. When he told them they were filled with horror, for all men had heard of the slaying of Laius, and they would have turned him out by force. But Œdipus raised himself from the rock on which he was seated, and in spite of his beggar's rags and sightless eyes, there was a majesty about his face and form that marked him as no common man.

"Men of Colonus," he said, "ye judge by the evil I have done, and not by the good. Have ye forgotten the days when the name of Œdipus was honoured throughout the land? Of a truth the days of darkness came, and the stain of my sin found me out. But now is my wrathful spirit curbed, and the gods will make me once more a blessing to men. Go, tell your king Theseus, who rules in Athena's sacred citadel, that Œdipus is here, and bid him come with all speed if he would win a guardian for this land, an everlasting safeguard for his city in days of storm and stress."

So they sent off a messenger in hot haste, for there was a mysterious power about the aged wanderer that none could withstand. And soon Theseus arrived, himself a mighty hero, who had made Athens a great city and rid the country of many a foul pestilence. And he greeted Œdipus courteously and kindly, as befitted a great prince, and offered him hospitality. But Œdipus said,

[31] "The hospitality I crave, O king, is for no brief sojourn in this land. Nay, 'tis an everlasting home I ask. For the hand of Heaven is upon me, and full well I know that this day my soul shall leave this frail and broken body. And to thee alone is it given to know where my bones shall rest—to thee and thy seed after thee. As long as my bones shall remain in the land, so long shall my spirit watch over it, and men shall call upon my name to turn the tide of battle and stay the flood of pestilence and war. Wilt thou come with me, O king, whither the gods shall lead, and learn the secret of my grave?"

Then Theseus bowed his head, and answered,

"Show thou the way, and I will come."

So Œdipus turned and led the way into the grove, and Theseus and Antigone followed after. For a mysterious power seemed to guide him, and he walked as one who could see, and his steps were strong and firm as those of a man in his prime. Straight into the grove did he go till they came to the heart of the wood, where there was a sacred well beneath a hollow pear-tree. Close by was a great chasm going deep down into the bowels of the earth, and men called it the Gate of Hades, the Kingdom of the Dead. Here, too, the Awful Goddesses were worshipped under a new and gentle name. For after they had driven the murderer Orestes up and down the land for his sin, he came at length to Athens to stand his trial before gods and men. And mercy tempered justice and released him from blood-guiltiness, and the Furies laid aside their wrath and haunted him no more. So the people of Athens built them shrines and sanctuaries, and worshipped them as Eumenides, the Kindly Maidens.

[32] And now once more a wanderer was to find rest there from his sin.

When they reached the well, Œdipus sat down upon a rock and called his daughter to his side, and said,

"Antigone, my child, thy hand hath ministered to me in exile, and smoothed the path for the wanderer's feet. Go now, fetch water, and pour libation and drink-offering to the gods below. It is the last thing thou canst do for me on earth."

So Antigone fetched water from the well, and dressed and tended him, and poured libation to the gods. And when she had finished, Œdipus drew her to him and kissed her tenderly, and said,

"Grieve not for me, my child. Well I know that thy heart will ache, for love hath made light the burden of toil. But for me life's day is done, and I go to my rest. Do thou seek thy brethren, and be to them as thou hast been to me. My child, my child, hard is the way that lies before thee, and my soul yearneth over thee for the evil day that shall come. But look thou to thine own pure heart, on which the gods have set the seal of truth that changeth not with passing years, and heed not the counsels of men."

And he held her closely to him, and she clung weeping about his neck. As they sat a hush fell upon the grove, and the nightingales ceased their song, and from the depths of the grove a voice was heard like the voice of distant thunder.

"Œdipus, Œdipus, why dost thou tarry?"

When they heard it they were afraid. But Œdipus rose up and gently put his daughter from him, saying,

[35] "Lo! the voice of Zeus, who calleth me. Fare thee well, my child; thou canst go no further with me. For Theseus only is it meet to see the manner of my death, and he and I must go forward alone into the wood."

With firm, unfaltering steps he led the way once more, and Theseus followed after. And what happened there none can tell, for Theseus kept the secret to his dying day. But men say that when he came out of the wood his face was as the face of one who had seen things passing mortal speech. As for Œdipus, the great twin Brethren Sleep and Death carried his bones to Athens, where the people built him a shrine, and for many a long year they honoured him as a hero in the land of Attica. For though the sin that he sinned in his wrath and ignorance was great and terrible, yet his life had brought joy to many men and prosperity to more lands than one. For with wisdom and love he guided his days, and with sorrow and tears he wiped out the stain of his sin, so that, in spite of all he suffered, men love to tell the glory and wisdom of Œdipus, and of how he solved the riddle of the Sphinx.


[Illustration]

WITH FIRM, UNFALTERING STEPS HE LED THE WAY ONCE MORE, AND THESEUS FOLLOWED AFTER.


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