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The Golden Porch by  W. M. L. Hutchinson


 

 

THE FAVOURITE OF THE GODS

I

[1]

L
ONG, long ago, in an Eastern land, there lived a King who was the richest man in the world. The rivers in his country ran over golden sands, and their banks sparkled with gems instead of pebbles. The King's fields were full of stones, but he did not mind that, for every stone was a lump of silver, and the hillsides were bursting with rich red copper, which was even better than gold or silver for making shields and helmets and suits of armour. All the wealth of the land was the King's very own, and he hardly knew what to do with it all, he had so much. Besides being so rich, Tantalus, for that was his name, was so lucky in everything he put his hand to, that people began to say he was the special favourite of the gods, who had given him everything the heart of man can desire. Now for a long while, Tantalus deserved all his good fortune; he was kind and just to his subjects, and famous far and near for his boundless hospitality to strangers. High and low, rich and poor, [2] all travellers were welcome to his house, to stay as long as they would, faring sumptuously every day, and none departed without splendid presents. But his heart grew uplifted with the pride of his power and glory, till he would not be content, and longed to make himself still more renowned and envied among men. No king had a more stately dwelling than the palace in the city, which his forefathers had builded, but Tantalus began to despise it as unworthy of his majesty, and it came into his mind that his people would pay him yet greater honour and reverence if they were not permitted to see his splendour every day. He resolved to build himself a palace on a mountain-top, a golden house that should dazzle the eyes of all beholders, and dwell there aloof, like a god in his temple; then when he came down to the city, the sight of him would be a nine days' wonder, and the folk would begin to think of him as greater and more glorious than a mortal man.

So the golden house was built, and shone like a star on the rocky crest of the mountain. Far below in the city, men looked up to that glittering speck among the clouds, and said that their great King was neighbour now to the gods above. When Tantalus saw the finished work, his heart swelled with triumph and delight; he walked through its marble courts, where fountains [3] spouted from the jaws of golden dragons, through colonnades of silver pillars, shaped like palm trees, with broad fans of gold and clustering fruit of rubies, and came to the banqueting-hall, which was like a vast bower of roses, yellow, white, and pink, but the twining branches were golden, and all the roseleaves were pearls. The ceiling was enamel, the colour of the sky on a summer night, and at dusk it glowed like the sky with a thousand stars, which were lamps hollowed out of gems. Tantalus had ordered a splendid feast to be made ready, that he might sup for the first time in this hall of roses. He watched the troops of slaves spreading cushions of cloth of gold on ivory chairs and couches, and setting forth food and wine on tables of carved alabaster, in dishes of gold and flagons of crystal or amethyst, and a sad thought came to him in the height of his pleasure. One thing was lacking to this feast, though it was more magnificent than ever king had dreamed of. For what was a feast without guests? What, after all, was the good of having a golden palace, and a hall encrusted with pearls, when he had no one but his own courtiers to sit at his table and tell him how wonderful it all was? Some day, no doubt, he might entertain some neighbour king, who would go away quite humbled by the sight of these glories, but he fetl [should be felt] that nothing would ever entirely console him for [4] the want of guests, whose praise was really worth having, guests who were his equals, to share his feast that first night. As he thought thus, he heard one of his courtiers, who had all followed him through the palace with cries of delighted wonder, say to the rest, "Truly, our lord the King has built him a house that has not its like on earth, and there can be nothing more marvellous even in heaven. See, my friends, how glorious is this chamber, where he will hold his royal feast! Would you not think that gods, rather than men, were the expected guests at such a banquet?"

These words seemed to Tantalus an answer to his unspoken wish. The gods! Yes, they and only they were guests worthy of him and his surpassing splendours. With a proud gesture, he threw up his hands heavenward, and cried aloud, "I, Tantalus the Kin, bid the gods, one and all, come taste of my good cheer."

No sooner had he spoken than a clap of thunder shook the palace, and the courtyard rang with the noise of horse-hoofs and of chariot-wheels. The doors of the banqueting hall flew open as if blown by a gust of wind, and a great golden-brown eagle stalked through them up the room, and perched upon the throne where Tantalus was to sit. Next moment, a light streamed from the doorway, brighter a thousand [5] times than the radiance of the star-shaped lamps. So dazzling it was, that the King and his train covered their faces, and durst not look up. But then was heard a sound of trailing robes and gentle laughter, and a voice of unearthly sweetness said, "Fear not, Tantalus, but look upon your guests and make the welcome, for those you bade to your feast are come." With that, a soft hand drew away the King's hand from before his eyes, and he saw that she who spoke was Iris, the messenger of the gods. For she had wings such as you may see in pictures of the angels, only these were not white, but shimmered with all the colours of the rainbow, and Tantalus knew that the rainbow in the sky is the reflection of those bright wings which carry Iris over land and sea on the errands of the Immortals. She now led the King to a seat at the highest table, and, gathering courage to look about him, he saw that a great company were already sitting at the banquet, while his slaves and courtiers seemed to have lost their fear, and were waiting duteously upon them. On his own royal throne sat one who seemed another but a far more majestic king, crowned and sceptred, and the eagle perched beside him; and where the Queen of Tantalus should have sat, was another Queen, with whom no mortal princess could compare for stately beauty, wearing, like [6] a bride, a coronet of flowers and flowing veil inwrought with golden lilies. She, alone of the guests, seemed to look disdainfully at that glittering chamber, and, while the rest feasted and made merry, she leaned back in her ivory chair, stroking the sheeny neck of a peacock that stood stiffly beside her with gorgeous tail outspread. Tantalus knew that those two must be Zeus and Hera, the King and Queen of the gods, and pride mingled with awe in his heart, to see the greatest of the Immortals seated as guests under his roof. Zeus, that dread lord of the sky, whose mighty arm could hurl thunderbolts in his wrath, had laid aside the fulness of his glory, which was too bright for mortal eyes to bear, and appeared in mild and gracious majesty; he smiled gravely and kindly on his host, and Tantalus took courage to watch the rest of that heavenly company. Not far from Zeus sat a god who looked like his brother, which indeed he was, but he had a sterner face and a less kingly bearing, and wore no crown upon his long black locks. Instead of a sceptre, he held a trident of rock-crystal, and by this it was easy to know him for Poseidon, who had power over the sea, and all rivers and springs. Men feared the anger of Poseidon scarcely less than that of Zeus, because, though he had no thunderbolts, he could make the earth rend and quake, or [7] the sea run mountains high, with one blow of this trident. But though he was fierce and terrible if offended, none of the Immortals was more kindly to the race of man, and none, it was said, was so faithful a friend to those who had once pleased him. And this, as you will hear presently, was a true saying.

Close to Poseidon, and leaning lovingly against his broad shoulder, Tantalus saw a bright-haired youth, at whose feet lay a bow and quiver, and a golden lyre. It was the archer Apollo, who is the sweet singer of heaven, and near him sat nine fair sisters crowned with violets, who are called the Muses. As the feats went on, another youth, whose smiling eyes sparkled with mischief, slipped from his place and stood behind Apollo, and stealthily picked up the golden lyre. But Apollo turned, and took it from him laughing, and said, "Ah, thieving Hermes! Did you not give me this to make amends for the kine you stole from me in the Arcadian pastures, when you were yet a little roguish boy, and now would you steal it too? Nay, let me keep it, my brother, and you shall hear me sing with the Nine, in honour of our kind host.["] Then Tantalus looked eagerly at the merry face of Hermes, for there were many greater gods, but none more beloved than he, the god of homely shepherds and of wayfarers. He wore the cap and sandals of a traveller, but his [8] cap was the cap of darkness, that made the wearer invisible when he pleased, and his sandals were the shoes of swiftness, that carried him dryshod over the surface of the sea. The King knew that all unlooked-for good luck, and all treasure trove, is the gift of Hermes, and he it is who charms asleep the eyes of whom he will, with the waving of the wand he carries.

And now Apollo sang to the golden lyre, and the Nine Muses sang with him. They sang in praise of Tantalus, the generous, the hospitable, the bounteous friend of the needy and the stranger, and how his name was glorious in many lands. They told how the gods looked down with favour on the good deeds that he had done, and how, in days to come, that favour should not cease from his house, but bring yet greater glory upon his children's children. That golden palace, they declared, should vanish from the earth, and be no more remembered, but generations yet unborn should marvel while mighty bards told in song the wondrous story of the race of Tantalus.

Now Apollo and those violet-crowned goddesses sang so enchantingly that not only the mortals but the heavenly guests who heard them sat as if spell-bound. Even the eagle, which had made Tantalus uneasy from time to time by fixing a fierce gaze upon him, and snapping its terrible [9] hooked beak was lulled asleep by the gracious harmony, and sat with bluish eyelids closed, motionless but for the rise and fall of its feathers, like ripples on brown water, as its glossy back heaved in slumber.

When the song ceases, Tantalus started as though wakened from a dream, and looked round him, almost fearing that he had only seen the forms of the Immortals in a vision. But it was all real, and no vision; there they were still sitting, those wondrous guests, with the same calm smile on their beautiful statue-like faces. At that moment Zeus, who had not yet spoken to the King, leaned forward and said in deep, grave tones, "Right, royally have you feasted us, O Tantalus, and we thank you for your good cheer. But since I know well that you are the most generous of hosts, I wonder that you should let one thing be wanting at your banquet."

"What thing is that, O King of gods and men?" asked Tantalus humbly (yet he was secretly angry that even Zeus should find fault with him); "I am a mere mortal," he added, "but the best a mortal can give I, surely, have set before you."

"Nay, my friend," Zeus answered, "the one thing you have not  offered us is —your best. Your costly fair, your gold and gems and ivory, [10] are these your greatest treasures? Think again, if you have not something still more precious."

Then turning to Hera, who was smiling very scornfully, he said, "Our generous host, my Queen, is not the man to deny his guests the choicest of his possessions; he has but forgotten for a moment what it is."

Just then, a curtain of Tyrian crimson that hung behind the throne was drawn quickly aside, and a little child ran laughing into the hall. It was the King's only son, the darling of his heart. Frightened slaves had told the Queen, his mother, that the gods were come down out of heaven to the King's feast, and she had not dared to behold them. but the child wanted so much to see what the gods were like, that he slipped away from her side, and now he stood gazing on them without the least fear, for indeed he was too young and too happy to be afraid of anything. His father saw the little lad look up into the face of Zeus with such innocent wonder that the god smiled, and laid his hand tenderly on the curly head.

"How say you now, Tantalus?" he said: "Will you not own that you have kept back one treasure, worth more than the wealth of your kingdom?"

But Tantalus bent his head and could not answer, for a sudden fear froze his heart. In [11] those days, no host would let his guests depart without some gift, and a generous man would offer them the choice of the treasures in his house. Was it possible that the gods would choose the gift of his only son, and was that why Zeus had reproached him for not setting the best he had before the eyes of his guests? Alas, he saw plainly that the immortals took more delight in the child's beauty than in all the wonders of the golden palace. The haughty Hera stooped to kiss his forehead, and the other goddesses called him tot hem one by one and said, "Did you ever see such a lovely child?" just as if they were mortal ladies. One of them, who had great grey eyes, and was called Athena, lifted him to her shoulder, to look at the golden helmet she wore, and laughed because he said he wanted one like it, and a shield and spear like hers. Then the fairest of them all, whose name was Aphrodite, took the little boy upon her lap, and whispered coaxingly that she would give him better playthings than shields or spears if he would come and live with her, in her garden of roses that bloomed all the year round. But Poseidon, that stern-faced god, who sat beside her, shook back his dark hair and said, "O Queen of Love, have you not a boy of your own to play with? Come with me, little prince, for I will love you with a truer love than this fair goddess, [12] and you shall have a gift that will please you better than her roses, when you come to be a man."

The child looked into Poseidon's eyes, which were deep blue like the sea, and felt that he liked this friendly god the best of all; he climbed upon his knee, and rested his little head on the sea-god's shoulder, and, being already drowsy, fell sound asleep. Meanwhile, Tantalus had made up his mind what to do, for dearly though he loved his son, his pride was stronger than his love. It should never be said that he, Tantalus the King, sent another king, the King of the Sky, who had done him so great an honour, away from his feast empty-handed. Proudly he raised his head, at last, and met the searching glance of Zeus. "Great Lord of the Immortals," he said, "if indeed there is aught in this poor house of mine to please you, and these my other guests, I offer it with a willing heart. If indeed I failed to adorn this feast with my fairest jewel, it was with no grudging thought, for behold, ever-living gods, that jewel is yonder, and it is yours if you so choose." So saying, he pointed to the sleeping child. Now Zeus knew that pride and vainglory alone made Tantalus so ready to give up his son, but he would not judge him hardly, because he was a mortal man, and good and evil were mingled in his heart [13] like flowers and weeds in a garden. Therefore the god thanked the King in gracious words, even as a man might thank his friend. "Royal Tantalus," he said, "this land of Lydia may boast henceforth that her king is the most generous, as well as the richest, in the world. Know, now, that when I said you had not offered us your best, I spoke to prove you, and to show my Queen, and these my children and kinsfolk, how nobly you can play the host. Now, my friend, we bid you farewell, but we will not take your son with us; it is enough that you have freely offered him to the gods, and in recompense for that, a year shall not pass before both he and you shall sit at our table, even as we have sat this night at yours."

Then once more came a great flash of light, and a peal of thunder, and when the dazzled mortals could see clearly again, the gods had vanished. The King looked hastily towards the couch where Poseidon had said, half-fearing that he might have carried off the child, after all. But there lay his little son, curled up among the embroidered cushions, and smiling in his sleep. One small hand held a rosebud Aphrodite had given him from her bosom, and in the other lay a strange blossom, white as the sea-foam. Poseidon also had a garden, and this was one of the flowers that grew there, under the waves.

II

[14]

A
YEAR had almost passed since the wonderful night when the gods feasted in the house of Tantalus. The story of that banquet was carried far and wide, and strangers came from many lands to see with their own eyes the king who had entertained Zeus himself, and hear from his own lips how the Immortals had looked, and what they had said to him. Tantalus was never tired of boasting about it all, and if he was proud before, you may fancy that now he was ten times prouder and more vainglorious. As he repeated the marvellous tale to guests at his feasts, surrounded by so much splendour, and seated on the throne where, as he told them, the King of the gods had sat in all his majesty, he began to feel that he himself was a sort of Zeus upon earth, and to imitate all he could remember of the god's appearance and behaviour. "Thus spoke Zeus," he would say, holding out his own sceptre, and doing his best to copy the voice of the heavenly King, when he told the story. And at last, as it seemed to him that he acted the part of a god exceedingly well, he did it not only when he described the visit of the Immortals, but every day and all day long. But he forgot how gracious and how gentle those Immortals had shown themselves, [15] and only tried to copy their calm, grand looks and gestures. So, while he still gave splendid feasts to all who came, and sent them away with costly gifts, he now received his guests coldly and haughtily, as if they were hardly worthy to come into his presence. Travellers, when they got home again, talked even more about the King's pride and his boastful speeches, than about his golden house and his marvellous riches. As for his own subjects, they never saw him now, except driving through the city in a glittering chariot drawn by four white horses, while troops of slaves ran before him, scattering gold among the crowd, and crying, "Make way there for the Great King! Bow down before him, all ye people, and do him reverence, for he is the Friend of the Gods, and his glory is more than mortal." Tantalus no longer sat in the judgment-seat of the kings of Lydia, to do justice among his people, and if any man were bold enough to go up tot he golden palace, either the guards would drive him away, saying that the King did not choose to be troubled by common folk, or they would push him roughly into the presence-chamber, where Tantalus sat enthroned, stiff and silent, like an idol, in gorgeous array. And the stern, cold face of the King would so terrify the poor man that he would not dare to plead for the boon he came seeking.

[16] So the year went by, but before it ended, rumours came to Tantalus that the tales of the travellers about his famous banquet were disbelieved by many who heard them. People were saying everywhere that he had not really feasted the gods at all; he had merely built a most wonderful palace, and then, because his guests were always telling him that his house and his banquets were fit for the gods, his head was turned with those flatteries, till he suffered a strange delusion, and thought he had given a feast to Zeus himself. Some of the travellers now asked him to show them some token of the Immortal's visit, which he was unable to do, and this made him very angry. How he wished that he had thought of asking Zeus to leave some sign of his presence which no one could doubt! It was no use, of course, to point to his courtiers and his slaves, and say, "All these saw the gods as plainly as I did," for every one knew what to expect of slaves and courtiers. If the King, their master, chose to say he had seen the gods, they would not dare to contradict him; nay, if he said he saw them with two heads apiece, or no heads at all, they would swear they saw the same. These thoughts were very unpleasant to Tantalus, and so occupied his mind that he forgot the time was at hand when he, in turn, was to feast with Zeus. Indeed, [17] although at first he had boasted freely about going as a guest to the heavenly halls, he had never felt quite sure that he would ever get there, and as time went on, he came to think of his seeing the gods face to face as a wonderful thing that could never happen again. If only he could convince these impudent travellers that it ever had  happened! Now it befell, on the very day twelvemonth from the coming of the gods, that ambassadors arrived, with gifts from the king of a far country, who desired to know the truth of the report he had heard, that the King of Lydia had given a feast to the Immortals. Tantalus received them hospitably, and when evening came, they sat with him at the banquet, and he told them the whole story. Perhaps some doubts about that story had been whispered to them on their journey, for as the King told the tale, he noted with displeasure that the newcomers looked one at another, smiling slily. "Strangers," he cried haughtily, "do you dare to mock me? Or do you doubt that my tale is true?"

"Great King," answered the eldest ambassador, "we are simple men, and we fear that you are pleased to make sport of us, asking us to take your royal dreams for truth. But if this be not so, we are sure that Zeus left with you some token of his presence at your feast, to be a witness to all men of the honour done you. We [18] humbly desire to see that token, that we may carry word of it to our master, who will then believe the wondrous report he has heard."

Tantalus was nearly beside himself with rage at this request, which he felt quite certain had been suggested to the ambassadors by some of those evil-minded persons who had asked him the same thing before, and gone away scoffing. But it came into his mind that he would only make matters worse if he sent these grave ambassadors away with an angry answer. They would spread the story still farther, of his having no proof at all to show, and very soon, unless he could somehow put a stop to what people said about him, he, Tantalus, would become the laughing-stock of the world. Then quickly he resolved to gain a little time by hiding his rage and speaking pleasant words.

"I see," he said, "that the King, your master, has wise and prudent servants. You are very right to desire some proof of so great a marvel, and you shall have it. But it is already late, and you are wearied with your journey. Go now to rest, and to-morrow I will show you what you wish."

The ambassadors bowed deeply, and were led to the splendid chambers prepared for them. Tantalus remained sitting in the jewelled hall, thinking very hard what he was to do. To- [19] morrow he meant to put the ambassadors off again with some further excuse, and to persuade them to stay with him some days longer; but how could he find them a proof, however long they stayed? "I would be alone," he said to the slaves who waited his commands, and they all withdrew. It was very quiet now in the great empty room. The king thought and thought, till nearly midnight, but could find no way out of his difficulty. any one else would have called upon the gods to help him, but Tantalus was so used to thinking himself all-powerful that this never entered his head. At last, quite tired out with puzzling over the question, he leaned back on his throne and fell asleep. How long he slept he never knew; it seemed only a few minutes had passed when he was awaked by sounds of music, talking, and laughter. He sat up and rubbed his eyes in astonishment. There, all round him, sat the gods, just as he had seen them a year ago that very night! For one moment, he thought they had come back to show themselves to those unbelieving ambassadors and cover them with shame, but then he saw that he was no longer sitting in his own palace-hall. The place he had awoke in seemed like a vast temple, with walls and ceiling of some wonderful stone that shone like pure gold, and yet was transparent like glass. All round this hall were rows of tall [20] pillars, and every pillar was a single block of ruby, sapphire, or emerald, glowing with its own coloured fire. There were no windows, and no lamps either in the room, which was flooded with what Tantalus would have thought was sunshine, only he supposed it was still night. Then he knew that this was no earthly palace, but the dwelling of Zeus, and suddenly he remembered the promise of the god. This was the night he was to feast with the Immortals—and here he was! He wondered if the little Pelops had been carried to the sky-palace too, and soon saw the child nodding and smiling at him from the couch where he sat, as he had done before, between Poseidon and the Queen of Love. All the Immortals now welcomed Tantalus with friendly looks and words of greeting, and one who seemed the youngest of the goddesses presented him with a shining cup, into which she poured wine the colour of dark mountain honey. "Fill all our cups to the brim, Hebe, my daughter," said Zeus to the beautiful cup-bearer, "and drink, every one of you, to this friend of ours, who played the host to us so well."

"To our host, King Tantalus," cried the golden-haired Apollo, and the rest, as they drank, repeated, "To King Tantalus," and then all together cried, "Hail, mortal! Hail, guest of Zeus! Hail, friend of the gods!"

[21] Now Tantalus no sooner tasted the drink of the gods, which men call nectar, than he was filled with such mirth and gladness as he had never known, nor any mortal can know, save those few who are permitted to share the banquet of Zeus. For nectar is brewed with honey from celestial flowers and with the juice of apples that grow in the Enchanted Isles of the Sunset, and they who drink it have perpetual youth and joy.

So the King forgot in a moment the troubles he had left behind on earth, and gave himself up to the delights of the heavenly feast. He thought he could look for ever at this glorious house of Zeus, compared to which his golden palace seemed but a mere hovel. Here topaz and emerald, and all stones known on earth as precious, because they are found only in small pieces, were to be seen in blocks as big as the masses of marble on his own hillsides. Therefore the gods wore no jewels, such as earthly kings are adorned with, and as for silver and gold, though their houses and furniture seemed to be made of those metals, they were not the same silver and gold that there is in this world of ours, but so much purer and finer that the light shone through them. So the hall where the Immortals were feasting looked like a temple build out of moonbeams and sunbeams, and rainbows, and its sapphire pavement like a piece of sky, which is just what it was.

[22] The tables in this hall were covered with every sort of delicious fruit that grows in all the countries of the world, for in the garden of Zeus they are all ripe the whole year round. there were peaches and grapes, oranges and pomegranates and strawberries, and many more sorts that Tantalus had never seen before. The King noticed that none of the Immortals took any of these fruits from the baskets of myrtle-twigs in which they were piled, and that clouds of butterflies were hovering over the tables, Now the plates of his neighbours seemed always full, but his remained empty, and as no one offered him anything he began to think the gods were strangely neglecting their guest.

"You do not understand our customs, friend Tantalus," said the merry voice of Hermes in his ear. "We offer you nothing, because you have only to wish, and your plate will be as full as mine." The King looked at a superb bunch of grapes which he saw in front of him, but just as he wished for it, it disappeared. At the same instant a very large purple butterfly settled on his plate; he put out his hand to touch it, and it was gone, but in its place there lay the bunch of grapes. Then he wished for an orange, and the same thing happened, only this time the butterfly's wings were golden-red.

"I do not understand those butterflies," he said to Hermes

[23] "They are your wishes," said the young god, "and if you look, you will see the wishes of my companions bringing them whatever they may fancy in the same way."

"This is a strange magic," said the Kin, who now felt quite at ease with the friendly Hermes. "But now I see a number of golden bees flying about the tables, which I think must be wishes too, for wherever one alights, it vanishes and a round cake the colour of honey appears in its place. Tell me, Hermes, if these fruits and those small cakes are all your food, for though nothing can be more delicious than your fruit, I should not care, for my part, to live on figs and grapes and honey-break."

Hermes, at these words, could not answer for laughing, but Athena, that grey-eyed goddess who sat on the King's other side, turned her grave face to him, and said, "You know no what you say, O Tantalus! That honey-bread, as you call it, is the bread of immortality, which in the speech of men is called ambrosia, and those who eat of it live for ever. Rich and great you may be, King of Lydia, but wise you are not, or you would know better than to ask if we Immortals have such food as pleases your gross mortal appetite. An ox roasted whole, perhaps, is what you hoped for at my father's table?"

Tantalus knew that Athena was the wisest of [24] all the gods, except her father Zeus, and he was ashamed that she had overheard his thoughtless words.

"Lady and Queen," he answered, "forgive what I have spoken in my ignorance. How could I know that the bread was the divine ambrosia, of which men tell but know not what it is like?"

"Come, sister," then said Hermes, still laughing, "do not be offended with our guest. Remember we do not all despise the food of mortals, and Zeus himself has eaten porridge in a peasant's hut. Yes, Tantalus, once I travelled on earth with Zeus, in the disguise of wandering pedlars, that we might see who would show kindness to the poor and homeless. And when we had been turned away from many a rich man's door, we found shelter with two poor old cottagers, who gladly shared their humble supper with us out of charity. Those worthy souls, Philemon and his wife Baucis, were terrified when we showed ourselves in our true shape next morning, but they soon had their reward, for Zeus promised to grant whatever they should ask."

"Then I suppose they asked to be made King and Queen of that country," said Tantalus, "though I cannot say I ever heard of a King Philemon or a Queen Baucis."

"No," replied Hermes, "the only thing they wanted was never to be parted, or to leave the [25] cottage where they had been so happy together. Zeus promised that they never should, and when they had ended their lives in peace at the same moment, they were changed into two oak trees, which are still flourishing where their cottage stood."

Tantalus thought to himself, "What a stupid old couple! If I had been in their place, I should have asked Zeus for something very different." But aloud he only said, "That is a very pretty story," not wishing to risk another reproof from the severe Athena.

She, however, seemed ready to make him amends for speaking so sternly, and, breaking a cake of ambrosia in her snowy hands, she gave him half of it, with a gracious look. "You also, King," she said, "have earned a reward for your hospitality, and this is it. Unlike Philemon and Baucis, you already have everything that a man can wish for on earth, therefore Zeus wills to give you the one gift you have not, the gift of immortality."

Tantalus took the piece of ambrosia, and wondered to feel how light it was. He tasted it, and it was like nothing he had ever tasted before, and it melted in his mouth like snow. Never had food seemed to him so delicious, yet he could not tell if it was sweet, or sour, or salt, because these are the names of earthly flavours, and the [26] flavour of ambrosia is different from any of them. Now he saw that Poseidon and Aphrodite gave the child Pelops fruit to eat and nectar to drink, but they did not give him ambrosia, and he wished that Pelops also should eat this bread of immortality.

"Will not the gods give ambrosia to my son," he asked Athena, rather timidly, "that he too may live for ever?"

But the wise goddess shook her head. "We may not give it to a child," she said, "and I will tell you the reason. When we have once given a gift, we have no power to take it back again. So it would be cruel to give the gift of immortality to any one who was not old enough to choose whether he will live for ever, or die, like other men, when his time comes."

"Surely," said the King, "there is no one who would not choose to live for ever."

"Ah, Tantalus," said Athena, and a strange look of pity came into her grey eyes, "you think so now, because you have never known pain or sorrow. But how would it be if your life were full of misery instead of happiness? Think what it would mean to you then, to know you could not die. Beware, moreover, that you  presume not to give our gift to others, for that were deadly sin."

These words, which he was to remember when too late, gave the King a vague feeling of dread, [27] as if some unknown evil was about to befall him, and he was glad that Hebe at this moment filled his cup with nectar, and Apollo took his lyre and sang a joyous song.

When this was ended, Zeus called him to his side, and said: "Now, Tantalus, I, who was your guest, have given you feast for feast, and since you gave me your best, I have granted you the highest reward a mortal can have. Henceforth you need not fear death, and so long as you deserve to be the friend of the gods, you shall drink with us the sacred nectar which continually renews our youth and gladness."

"And yet, O King of us all," said Hera, with her scornful smile, "I think that this our guest desires a certain gift so much that he would prefer it to nectar and ambrosia."

"Let him name it, Lady of my heart," answered Zeus, "for we will not have him depart with any desire unsatisfied."

"I can name it," Hera said, tossing her queenly head. "It is Fame, and were I a mortal, I would seek it through the world, as all those heroes do who are my favourites among men."

"That I can well believe," replied Zeus gravely, "but now let our friend speak for himself. How say you, Tantalus? Have you not fame enough already, being known for the richest and most hospitable king in all the world?"

[28] Now the words of Hera had reminded Tantalus that his fame among men was in danger from the evil-speaking of the people who would not believe he had feasted the gods.

"Great Zeus," he said, "I cannot thank you enough for the wonderful reward you have given me this night. But since you bid me, I will dare to confess that there is one thing wanting to make me entirely happy."

Then he told how the great honour the gods had done him by coming to his banquet was not believed by any one, and how that very night the ambassadors from a far country had asked for a proof of the story. And he prayed Zeus to grant him some token, which these men might see and believe. He heard the god answer, "When you awake, O Tantalus, you shall find such a token beside you," and then a rosy mist began to float before his eyes. He could just see that Hermes stood beside him, slowly waving his want, then his eyes closed, and he knew no more.


III

W
HEN King Tantalus awoke, he found himself once more in his own banqueting-hall, which was now bright with the morning sunshine. His first thought was, "I have only dreamed a dream," [29] and he felt bitterly disappointed, for what could he now say to the ambassadors, and where was the token he had hoped to show them? But he saw on the table beside him a golden cup and platter, which he thought the slaves must have set there while he slept, and being hungry and thirsty, he ate and drank the bread and the wine that were in them; and at the first taste, he knew that the bread was ambrosia, and the wine, nectar. "Then it was no dream, after all," he said to himself, "for this is the token Zeus promised. Yet, what am I to do with it, for Athena warned me that I must not give the god's gift to any one else, and if I tell those men that these are ambrosia and nectar, they will not believe unless they taste for themselves." So thinking, he lifted the cup to drink again of that delicious wine, and behold, the cup was full to the brim, as it was before! Then he looked at the platter, and saw that the cake, from which he had broken a piece, was whole again. Once more he drank, and broke another piece from the cake, and immediately the cup was full again, and the cake lay whole in the platter. Then he rejoiced greatly, for he knew that this wonder would assuredly overcome all the doubts of the ambassadors, and of all others who should see him eat and drink before them out of a cup and platter that never grew empty.

But now he heard sounds of weeping and [30] wailing from the inner chambers of the palace, where the Queen and her children lived, and he clapped his hands loudly to summon his slaves. "What is this weeping I hear?" he asked them, when they entered, and they told him, "It is the Queen and her women, O King, weeping because at dawn they saw that the little prince was gone from his bed-chamber, and we have searched the palace from end to end, but he is nowhere to be found." This they said trembling, for they feared the King would fall into a rage, and order them to be put to death if they did not instantly find the child, and they were astonished when he answered, without grief or anger, "It is well. Search no more, for I know what is become of my son." Then he went to the Queen's chamber, and she cried to him, with tears, "Alas, my lord, what can have befallen our child? I saw him sleeping safe and sound before I went to rest, and as I slept, I dreamed that a tall, kingly stranger, with long black locks, stood at my bedside, holding the boy in his arms, and they smiled on me, and were gone. At that I woke, fearing I knew not what, and ran to the next chamber, and woe is me, the child's bed was empty."

"Lady wife," said Tantalus, "I know where Pelops is, and, trust me, no evil can befall him there. The stranger you saw in your dream was the great Poseidon, who loves the boy, and has [31] taken him to the heavenly halls. Did I not tell you how I offered our son to the gods when they feasted with me, and how they promised that he and I should be their guests? They have fulfilled that promise, and now I have seen the palace of Zeus, I as well content that Pelops should abide there for a time. Doubt not that he will be restored to us ere long, for I must tell you that the Immortals have made me their chosen friend and boon companion, and loaded me with such proofs of favour that I am certain they will refuse me nothing I desire."

Now the Queen was a meek and gentle lady, who held her lord for the most wonderful of men, and thought it not strange that even the gods were glad to have him for a friend, but she loved her little son so dearly that she was only half comforted to hear where he was, since she was never happy when he was out of her sight.

But the King did not stay to cheer her, or to tell her more; he was in haste to prepare for his triumph, when the unbelieving ambassadors should see the token they had asked for. He ordered that all should be made ready for the mid-day banquet, and the tables spread as usual with the choicest faire, but that all the dishes and vessels set on his own table should be empty; then, when he took his seat upon the throne, he placed among them the cup of nectar and the platter of ambrosia, [32] and bade the slaves call the ambassadors to the feast. And this was to Tantalus the proudest and happiest moment of his life, for his guests were even more astonished than he had hoped when he showed them the food and drink of the gods, and poured nectar from the celestial cup into the flagons and goblets on his table till all were filled, and heaped all the dishes with fragments of the cake of ambrosia, which grew no smaller, however often he broke it. They cried out that now indeed they could doubt no longer, and the King their master should hear, when they came home, that the gods had not only visited Tantalus of Lydia, but had bestowed on him the most marvellous gifts ever given to mortal man. On the morrow they departed for their own land, and spread the news upon their way, that Tantalus, after all, told a true tale, and could show the proof of it, for he had a never-failing portion of the bread and wine of the Immortals.

After this, King Tantalus for some time thought himself the happiest of men, being no longer troubled by the doubts or questions of travellers, who were now welcome to him again because he enjoyed displaying his wonderful cup and platter, to satisfy them. He did not forget Athena's warning, and was careful to keep the nectar and ambrosia for himself alone, telling all his guests that he was forbidden to share those [33] gifts with any one. Meanwhile, the child Pelops was seen no more, and strange stories of his disappearance began to be whispered abroad, but they did not come to the King's ears, for none dared repeat them to him. It was even said that Tantalus, who boasted how he had offered his son to the gods, and now declared the boy was dwelling with them above, had really slain him in secret for a sacrifice, to please the Immortals, and win from them that reward of nectar and ambrosia. But this story came from among the lowest of the folk, who knew not that such a deed, if Tantalus had ever so much as dreamed of doing it, would have made him utterly hateful in the sight of the gods.

Now while the King was happy, the Queen, his wife, pined day by day for the loss of Pelops; she had one other child, a daughter named Niobe, but Pelops was far dearer to her because of his loving ways, and now her only comfort was that she dreamed of him every night, and always say him radiant with joy. The Princess Niobe, who was some years older than her brother, was a haughty damsel and cold-hearted, and the gentle Queen had long feared her daughter's pride would bring unhappiness upon her. But Tantalus thought the maiden could not be too proud, being the daughter of such a king as he, and loved her all the better for showing a spirit so like his own. [34] The time now came for her to be wedding to the king of a neighbouring land, and the golden palace was thronged by countless multitudes from far and near, who were bidden to the marriage rejoicings. Guests of every degree were feasted by thousands for a whole month before the wedding, for the King had sent heralds and messengers a three months' journey—east, west, south, and north—proclaiming everywhere that all were welcome to this great festival. Then, on the marriage day, having poured forth in abundance the treasures of his kingdom on all who came, and filled their eyes with the sight of such royal splendour as the world never saw before or since, Tantalus held the crowning feast of all in his hall of roses; and in the fulness of his glory, his fat, the fate his proud heart brought upon him, was sealed at last. In that hour he felt it was no longer enough for him to be the greatest king in the world, and the acknowledged friend and favourite of the gods; no, he would be something greater still: he, though a man, would wield the power and receive the honours of a god, for he would bestow on the men around him the greatest gifts that Zeus himself could give them. He would make them immortal, and he too would know what it was to be adored, to have temples and altars raised to his name by grateful worshippers, because he had delivered them from the fear [35] of death. And so he would not merely live for ever, but through all eternity he would enjoy unheard of fame and glory as the giver of everlasting life to such as pleased him. These thoughts no sooner flashed through his brain, than he commanded jars and baskets of gold to be brought to his table, and began to fill them with the nectar and ambrosia which stood before him, saying with a loud voice: "Set this food and wine of the gods before the bridegroom and the bride, and before each of the guests, that they may eat and drink thereof, and live for ever, by the grace of Tantalus." At these words all the guests raised a great shout of joy, and bowed down before his throne, praising and blessing him for that boon. But even as the slaves poured out the nectar the light of the noonday was blotted out by so thick a darkness that no man in the hall could see his hand before his face. A sudden wind blew deathly cold through the blackness, and after the wind came a hollow groaning sound from deep within the earth. Stricken dumb with terror, all the banqueters sat motionless in the pitchy gloom for moments that seemed hours, till that sound came again, louder and deeper, and they felt the solid ground rock under their feet and heard a crash as of falling pillars. Then, with one cry of despair, all at once they started up, and rushed towards the doorway, groping [36] blindly to find it, and struggling forward through the dense, invisible throng around them. None of that multitude could ever tell how he reached the courtyard, and fled still onward through the darkness, not knowing whither, till he found himself at last on the mountain slopes outside the palace; but there, when the darkened sun shone out again, stood one vast crowd of men, women, children, animals, trembling but unhurt. Every living thing the palace held escaped from the earthquake save only the King himself, who was nowhere to be seen. As the darkness lifted, all eyes were turned anxiously towards the Golden House. Great rents were seen in its shining walls, and of its hundred towers there were but ten left standing; no fountains played now in the marble courts, and beyond the shattered pillars of its porch the banqueting hall seemed a mount of glittering ruins. The Princess Niobe entreated her newly-wedded lord to go back and seek for her father, and he would have done so, but at that moment the earth shook with a yet louder roar, the crags around tottered, and all that remained of the palace sank before their eyes into the mountain. At that sight the whole multitude fled down the hillsides to the city in the plain, not daring once to look behind. For many days clouds hung low on the sides of the mountain, while all the folk in the city wept and [37] prayed and fasted, and many took flight into the country, fearing lest the hill itself should fall and overwhelm them. And when the clouds cleared away, the rocky peak where the Golden House had stood was seen to be cleft in twain; and some who were bold enough at last to climb thither brought back word that between those two jagged summits lay a deep ravine, covered with great splintered stones and overhung by towering precipices. No sign of life, nor trace of the palace could they see, and it was now plain to all that Tantalus had perished.

The king who had wedding Niobe then took her away to his own land, and would have taken her mother also, but the Queen would not leave the old palace in the city, where she had lived more happily than in the Golden House, before her husband gave way to that sinful pride which proved his bane. She bade farewell to her daughter with many tears, and that night, as she entered her chamber, she said: "I am indeed left desolate. Cruel are the gods, for they have destroyed Tantalus, my lord; and how do I know what evil they have wrought to my darling son, whom they have kept from me so long? All else I would bear if only I might see my child again."

But scarcely had she said this when she gave a cry of joy, for she saw Pelops lying asleep upon [38] her bed. He awoke and sprang into her arms, and told her how glad he was to be with her again, although he had spent such a happy day with Poseidon, and pelted him with roses in Aphrodite's garden, which was even lovelier than she had said. "Last night," he said, "after Poseidon carried me to the house of Zeus, I saw my father there at the feast; but to-day, when I was tired of play, I asked where he was, and Poseidon said he was gone back to earth, and I must go back too. Then he kissed me, and I fell asleep, so I think he must have brought me home without my knowing." Then his mother knew that the months which had gone by since the child was carried off by the god had passed in heaven as one day, and she kept silence, fearing to tell him the strange and terrible end of the King, his father. And for a while all knowledge of what had befallen was kept from the little prince in spite of his asking continually where the King was, and why they were not living in the Golden House. But at last Zeus showed himself to the Queen in a dream by night, and bade her tell Pelops all the story of his father's pride and how he had despised the warning not to give any one else the gift with which the gods had trusted him. "Had Tantalus obeyed us," said the heavenly vision, "we should have kept his son among us till he was old enough to receive that same gift himself; [39] but now it is part of the King's punishment to know that the child has lost immortality through his father's sin."


IV

As Pelops grew up to manhood, all said of him that he was grave and thoughtful beyond his years, and in truth the story his mother had told him was ever in his mind, nor could he take pleasure in the pastimes of his comrades for thinking of his lost father. No one in the city would willingly set foot now upon the mountain, for the people believed that the place where the Golden House had stood was accursed ground, and neither hunter nor shepherd ever visited those hillsides, once so often climbed by the guests of Tantalus. But Pelops had often said to the Queen, "My father, who had eaten the bread of immortality, cannot be dead, and when I become a man, I will go up the mountain and look for him in that valley among the cliffs, for something tells me he is there." And though his mother besought him not to venture to that fearful place in the vain hope of finding one whom the gods had assuredly hidden from them for ever, the young prince held steadfastly to that purpose. At last, on a day that he went hunting, [40] the chase brought him and his companions to the foot of the mountain, and all the rest turned back, but he called to them that he would not lose the hart they followed for an idle fear, and went on alone. It was noon when he left them, but the sun was already low in the west when he stood among the rocks on the mountain top and gazed with a beating heart into the crag-walled hollow between the peaks. What was it he saw, or thought he saw yonder, at the far end of the ravine? A great fragment of rock, loosened from the face of the precipice, seemed toppling forward as though it must fall in another instant, and close under it sat a dim, kingly figure, with upturned face, holding both arms above his head to ward off the coming blow. Pelops ran forward, shouting to him to rise and fly, or the rock would crush him to death, and calling him "Father," for he knew it must be Tantalus, though he could not clearly see his face across the valley. But the figure did not stir, and suddenly the trembling mass above him was still. Then, hurrying nearer, Pelops could see that it was indeed Tantalus who sat there, robed and crowned as of old, and that a golden table stood beside him, with a shining cup and platter upon it. The King's form was so worn and wasted that he was more like a shadow than a living man, and his son's heart grew chill with fear as [41] looked into his eyes, for they seemed not to see him, nor did Tantalus give the least sign that he heard his eager, pleading words. In sorrowful bewilderment, Pelops saw him snatch up the cup, which was brimful of honey-coloured wine, and put it to his lips; no sooner did it touch them than the cup was empty, and he set it down with a despairing sigh. Then he broke a morsel from the cake that was on the platter, and would have eaten it, but it vanished in his hand. The young prince could not bear the sight; he sprang towards his father that he might take him in his arms and bring him away from the dreadful spot, where he had so long suffered these strange torments. But instantly a thick white mist from the heights above rolled down like a curtain between him and the King, and a voice came from behind the clouds, "Depart hence, O Pelops, for you cannot deliver this prisoner of the gods. As Tantalus has sown, so must he also reap, till the time is fulfilled."

Slowly and sadly Pelops went out of the glen; he turned at the entrance and looked back, and once more the King was sitting with upturned face, raising his arms towards the overhanging rock that trembled as before.

Pelops told no one what he had seen; but in after years, when people began to forget their fear of that mountain, it chanced more than once [42] that herdsmen on the hill went into the glen of rocks and were affrighted by the same sight. So the spot was held in dread for many ages, and men told that it was haunted by the spectre of Tantalus, a king, whom the gods had doomed for his pride to a threefold punishment—endless thirst, endless hunger, and endless terror of a rock that seemed ever falling, but never fell. And because Tantalus was for ever tormented by the vanishing of nectar and ambrosia when they touched his lips, people say to this day that man is tantalised, when they mean that he sees something he longs for very near him, and cannot get it.

Now the land of Lydia became hateful to Pelops, after he learned the fate of his father, and he resolved to make his home in some other country, where the sight of that lonely mountain top, whence he could not deliver the prisoner of the gods, would grieve his eyes no more. At this time, travellers from beyond the sea brought tales of strange doings at a city called Pisa, which lay in the far land of Greece. The King of Pisa, they said, had an only child, a maiden of surpassing beauty, and many princes sought her in marriage, but all her suitors had perished miserably—for this reason. King Oenomaus, her father, had promised the maiden to whoever could outstrip him in chariot-race, but if he, the King, could overtake the other chariot, the [43] suitor must die by his spear. Thirteen princes, one after another, had already dared the perilous race, and always, although Oenomaus gave them a start of six furlongs, he overtook them with his peerless horses, and struck them dead with a well-aimed spear-throw. Pelops no sooner heard all this, than he said to himself, "That is the adventure for me," and he took farewell of the Queen his mother, saying that he desired to seek his fortune across the sea, where men would not know him for the son of the hapless Tantalus. The Queen was willing he should go, for she had seen that he was restless and unhappy; but she said, "Take companions with you, and slaves of our household, and let a ship be loaded with treasure, and good store of all things needful, that you may appear as befits a king's son, in the land whither you sail."

"Not so, my mother," answered Pelops; "I am bound on a certain quest I hear spoken of, and neither treasure nor following will serve me to win it. I go alone, but when I come to the seashore, I am in hopes to find a friend there, who will give me what help I need."

So Pelops journeyed alone for three days and three nights, and came to the sea one morning very early, before the sun was up. There, standing on the solitary shore, in the faint light of dawn, he called aloud the name of Poseidon. [44] Immediately the calm deep was troubled, a long foam-crested billow came rolling shoreward, and broke at his feet in clouds of spray, and out of that wave the tall Poseidon rose up before him. "Earth-shaking God," said Pelops, "if you have not forgotten the joy we had once together in Aphrodite's garden, now grant to me a boon, for the sake of those pleasant hours."

"Ask what you will," answered Poseidon, "for I am no forgetful friend."

Then Pelops told his desire to race with the King of Pisa for the prize of his daughter's hand, and his fear that he would nowhere be able to find such fleet horses as the King's. "For I hear," he said, "that this King Oenomaus has a wonderful breed of horses from the far North, and some say he had them in a gift from Ares, the Lord of War, whom he honours above all other gods. Now therefore, O Poseidon, send me quickly over the sea by your divine power, and give me two coursers swifter than any earthly steeds, to win me the victory."

Poseidon turned, and struck the water with his trident; then he said, "Look seaward, Pelops," and the youth behold two white crests tossing far out at sea, like the crests of waves plunging toward the land. But as they neared the shore, he saw they were the flying manes of two white horses, which drew a golden chariot without a [45] driver, and flew like the wind over the grey waters, till they halted at his side. At Poseidon's bidding, he mounted the chariot and took the reins, and forthwith those immortal horses bore him so swiftly out to sea, that the shore was already dim in the distance before he could look back to speak his thanks to the god. Soon the speed of his going and the rushing sound of the waves lulled him into drowsiness, nor did he fully awake till the golden car stood still, and he found himself on land once more. The first wayfarer he met told him that this was the country of King Oenomaus, and before sunset he came to Pisa, a little city built upon a hill.

King Oenomaus was glad at the coming of this handsome stranger, who proclaimed himself a suitor for the hand of the Princess, for he made sure of overtaking and slaying him as he had done the rest. "There is another wooer come to try his fortune," he told his daughter, "a king's son, by the look of him, with goodly white horses, and a chariot gay with gold. To-morrow you shall ride in it, and see him fall at your side, like the others. That will be good sport, and those white horses will be the best of all my spoil from the fools who have raced with me." Next morning, the King brought his guest on foot to a broad and level valley near the city, and the slaves followed them, leading their chariots. [46] Pelops saw that a tall maiden, wearing the veil of a bride, stood in his own car and held the reins. When they came to the place appointed, Oenomaus said, "It is my custom to set Hippodameia, my daughter, in the car of him who races here to win her, that he may carry off the prize, if he can. Drive forward now, king's son, for I wait till you have gone six furlongs, but woe betide you if your horses are overtaken by those mares of mine, that came from the stalls of Ares, the War-god."

"Let me first see the face of this maiden," said Pelops, "since I have good hope to make her my bride this day."

"Throw back your veil, girl," said the King, and he laughed a cruel laugh; "let your suitor look on you while he may."

The Princess lifted her veil, and looked Pelops straight in the eyes; now her fierce father had reared her like a young warrior, till she could rein in the wildest horses, and see blood shed without flinching, nor had she ever known pity, but had taken delight in the deaths of those thirteen strangers who came seeking to carry her away as a bride. Yet as she looked at this beautiful youth, she wished, on a sudden, that she might not see him slain like those others, and at the strangeness of so wishing, she blushed and drew down her veil. Then Pelops looked [47] well to the harness of the white horses, and took his stand beside her, and drove them onward along the valley. They had not passed far beyond the stone that marked six furlongs from the starting-place when they heard the King's chariot thundering behind them, but his wondrous mares were no match for the steeds of Poseidon, and soon Oenomaus saw that the race was lost. With a cry of rage, he leaned forward and hurled the spear at Pelops; so mightily he threw that the spear-point struck the side of the golden car, and would have pierced it, had it not been of heavenly metal. But in the doing of the treacherous deed, the King ended his life of wickedness; as he cast the spear with his full force, he over-balanced himself, and fell headlong from the chariot and broke his neck.

Thus, by Poseidon's help, Pelops gained a bride and a kingdom, for he reigned at Pisa in the stead of Oenomaus. He build the god an altar in the valley of the chariot-race, and held a yearly feast there in his honour, with sacrifices and rejoicings, on the day of the victory. Also he ordained a race of chariots to be run at the festival, for prizes of golden vessels and costly armour, and in the after time the princes of all lands contended in that race, so glorious was the fame of it. But never came such horses thither as the white steed of Poseidon, which were seen [48] no more from the day when Pelops died in a good old age, but vanished out of their stalls that same hour.

Now as for the Princess Hippodameia, she mourned but little for her father, whom she had rather feared than loved, and lived in all happiness with her wedded lord, forgetting the wild and warlike life of her youth. The sons who were born to her became mighty warriors, who won lands and cities by the sword, and their children fulfilled the promise of the gods to Tantalus concerning the glory that should come upon his house. For these were they who led a host out of all Greece to that siege of Troy town, which the poets of ancient ages made into the finest story in the world.

Here ends this tale; yet let it be told what befell when Pelops had sent for the Queen his mother to dwell with him at Pisa, who, because he would not return to the land of Lydia, had given to Niobe the kingdom of their father. There the daughter of Tantalus reigned and prospered many years, but, even as he had done, she provoked the wrath of the Immortals, through exceeding pride. For she had seven sons and seven daughters, incomparably beautiful, and she boasted that she had borne fairer children than any of the goddesses. This boast was heard in heaven by the divine mother of Apollo, who [49] appeared to Niobe in the guise of an old woman, and bade her take back her words, lest the Archer-god and Artemis, his sister, should avenge the slight offered to their mother Leto. "Away, prating hag," answered the Queen, "or I will have you scourged from my doors for this insolence. Shall Leto, who has but the two children, be named equal to Niobe, the mother of twice seven?"

Forthwith the old woman vanished, and a cry was heard from the garden where the children were at play. "The arrows! The arrows! O mother, save us!" The Queen flew to the place, only to see her young sons and daughters fall one by one at her feet, pierced to the heart by the arrows of invisible archers. None escaped those shafts save the youngest of all, a little maid, whom Niobe shielded in her arms, and she, who lived to be a woman, was ever after pale as marble from the terror of that hour.


[Illustration]

NIOBE SHIELDING HER DAUGHTER.

Now there was a saying in those days that mortals whom the gods loved, died young, being delivered from all the toils of life, and the miseries of feeble age; moreover, it was counted a happy fate to die by the swift painless arrows that Apollo and Artemis shot from their silver bows. Let no one think, then, that Queen Niobe's innocent children were punished for their mother's pride; she, not they, suffered, and even [50] to her the Immortals were not unmerciful. Day and night she wept by the children's tomb, refusing to be comforted, till at last the gods in pity turned her to a rock, in the semblance of a woman, and her tears to a spring of water that trickles for ever down its face, and there it is unto this day.


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