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The Golden Porch by  W. M. L. Hutchinson


 

 

THE ISLE OF THE ROSE

I

[255] IN the days when the world began, there was an isle of the sea where the first roses bloomed wild on the first rose trees that ever grew. From its mountain peaks down to the very margin of the sparkling waves, the isle glowed with their crimson blossoms all the year, for in those days Earth had perpetual spring. But this rose-embowered land was like a fair garden haunted by deadly serpents, for the folk who dwelt in it were all wizards and warlocks. They were not as other men, but could change their shape to what they pleased, and they had the evil eye, which has power to blight every living thing it looks upon. The people of the neighbouring isles and coastlands lived in continual dread of that tribe of sorcerers, who were named the Telchines, because, in the malice of their black hearts they would sink ships by their enchantments, and come flying on the wings of the wind [256] to blast crops of bewitch cattle by their baleful glance.

In that far-off time, Zeus and his brethren were yet unborn, and Kronos, the old sky-god, was king over all. Now Earth, the mother of gods and men, prophesied to Kronos that one of his own children would drive him from his heavenly throne, therefore he sought to destroy them at their birth. But Rhea, his wife, hid them all as soon as they were born, and put stones wrapped in swaddling-bands into their cradles, which Kronos cast into a pit of darkness, in mistake for his children. The youngest-born was Zeus, and him his goddess-mother carried secretly to a cave on a lonely mountain, where the Fairies of the Rocks nursed him, and the Wild Men of the Woods kept up a din of nights with drums and cymbals, lest Kronos should hear his baby cries. And when the young god grew to his full strength, he brought Earth's prophecy to pass, for he drove his father from the sky to the Sunset Isles at the World's End, and sat upon his throne. That self-same day, certain ancient women, lame and limping, stood before the throne, and Zeus asked them who they were. "We are the Prayers of Men," they answered, "sent up from earth to call down vengeance on the evil Telchines, who, by foul magic, lay waste fields and vineyards, and strike [257] dead the firstlings of the flocks. We are lame, like all our sisterhood, and hobble slowly on our errands, yet of all messengers we are the surest in the end." Then the wrath of Zeus was kindled against that wizard-folk, and he hurled down red-hot thunderbolts, and rained a great rain upon the sea, till its waters boiled like a cauldron, and broke in monstrous billows over the isle of the Telchines. The bed of the deep rocked and heaved where the thunderbolts crashed upon it through the seething waters, and in that shock the foundations of the isle crumbled beneath it, and it sank with all its roses fathoms down under the waves. So perished the Telchines, yet there were some of them who by their art had foreknowledge of the coming doom, and fled betimes to another land, where, for fear of Zeus, they wrought evil no more, but won a great name for skill in the working of iron, which they, of all mortals, first found a way to forge and temper.

Now Zeus kept for himself the kingdom of the sky, and gave his brother Poseidon dominion over the seas and rivers, but as for the Earth, he portioned it out by lot among the other gods. But it so chanced that Helios, the Sun-god, was not present with the rest at the drawing of the lots, and thus no land was allotted for him to call his own. Pure and holy was that light-giving [258] god, and when next he came into the heavenly halls, it grieved the Immortals that they had forgotten him and left him portionless. Then Zeus would have cast lots again, but Helios said, "Nay, King of us all, of that there is no need. For, as I journey from East to West in my flaming car, I have looked down into the deeps of the sea, and have seen a fair isle growing up under the waves, as it were a rose upon its stem. Let that isle be my portion when it rises into the upper air, and bid the Three Weird Sisters, whose word is law in Earth and Heaven, promise with a binding oath that it shall remain my heritage for ever."

So Zeus called the Three Weird Sisters, and they came and stood before him, grey-haired women, robed in grey. Now they were older than Time and the beginning of things, yet none who looked on their calm faces could tell if they were old or young. The First Sister was winding black thread and white threads on a spindle; the Second was spinning with a golden distaff; the Third had in her hand a pair of shears. And the threads were the lives of men, which, when the Second Sister had spun to the length ordained for them, the Third cut short with her glittering shears. Zeus bade the swear as Helios desired, and they said, "We will sear by the Loathly [259] Water, for that great oath binds all the everlasting gods." Forthwith Zeus sent Iris his messenger to fetch some of that water, which rises in a fount called Styx, that is to say "Hateful," and falls down a cleft of the Earth into the Under World. Colder than ice is the Loathly Water, and deadly to drink, and the strongest vessel cannot contain it, for it shivers even iron in pieces. But the gods know that the only cup which can hold it is an ass's hoof, and in such a cup Iris brought it to the Three Sisters, Then the Second Sister held the cup on high, and swore by the Loathly Water that Helios should be lord of the isle, from the day it arose out of the waves to the end of time, and she poured out the water on the ground. For she it is who gives to all that live, both gods and men, their share of good and evil, but the other two have power in the hour of birth and of death.

It was the sunken land of the Telchines that Helios had marked springing upwards like a tree from its root in the ocean floor, and not many times did he journey round the sky before it shone, green as emerald, on the silver breast of the sea. The Sun-god poured down his keenest rays on the hills and vales until the salt ooze of the deep was dried up from their leafy thickets, once blossoming with a million roses. Those [260] flowers had perished in the waves, but a fairer flower lay in the midst of the wild-briar coverts—a sleeping maiden with cheeks like rose-leaves and hair golden as the rose's heart. Helios beheld her in joy and wonder, and hastened his fiery-footed horses westward, that he might visit this treasure of his isle when he had stabled them in his ocean palace. Then, in the purple twilight, he came to the bower where the maiden lay still sleeping, and awoke her with a kiss. And her eyes opened from a slumber of years to behold that radiant god, for she was the Fairy of the First Rose Trees, who had slept an enchanted sleep ever since the sea closed over the Telchines' isle. In all the Earth, Helios the all-seeing had seen nothing so lovely as her face, and he promised, if she would be his bride, to make her Queen of his sea-born land and call it by her name, and from that hour to this, it has been called the Isle of the Rose. But at first she wept, because all her flowers were drowned, and where her tears fell, they became white roses, and the white roses she kissed turned red.

Seven sons were born to Helios and the Rose Fairy, who, when they were grown to manhood, gathered a folk together from overseas, and builded a fair city on a hill of the isle. Then they said to their father, "We would have a [261] temple in the high place of our city, according to the custom of men, wherein one of the Immortals may abide, and bless us as his own people. And we know that this land is yours for ever, therefore in your honour we will build the temple." But Helios forbade them, and said, "It is not for me, who day by day must guide the chariot of the sun, to dwell in any temple made with hands. I will teach you what you must do to win a divine guardian for your city. There is rumour in Heaven of a prophecy uttered by Mother Earth that a new goddess will be born ere long, whose mighty power will prosper with boundless wealth and glory the city she chooses for her abode. And it is foretold that she will choose the city of those who first honour with a burnt sacrifice. So now build a temple, even as you desire, and be ready, when you hear tidings of such a birth, to offer a sacrifice forthwith to the new Immortal." The seven princes did as they were bidden, and they laid wood on the altar of the temple, ready to be kindled when the time came. Now it befell, while all the gods sat in council one day, and talked together, after their manner, about the affairs of mortals, that Zeus fell into deep thought, pondering how he might rule his kingdom for the best. Then, on a sudden, his brain throbbed with mighty pangs, and he cried aloud in his [262] anguish to Hephaestus, the lame smith of the gods, "Take your axe, Hephaestus, and cleave open my head, lest it burst in pieces, for this pain is as it were a live thing, struggling to come forth." Straightway Hephaestus heaved up his axe, and cleft the head of Zeus, and behold, a thick cloud of fiery vapour rose up from the wound, like a pillar of smoke. But even as the astonished gods looked upon it, its form was changed to the likeness of a woman of tall stature and glorious aspect, wearing a crested helm, and brandishing a spear, and she sprang down in the midst of them, uttering a great war-whoop. At that cry, the heavens trembled, and the earth was shaken, and the gods themselves shuddered on their golden thrones. And the Four Winds carried the tidings East and West and South and North, that a new goddess was born into the world, the daughter of Zeus without a mother. The seven sons of Helios no sooner heard it, than they took offering of all the first-fruits of their land, and hastened to the temple they had built, which crowned the hill whereon their city stood. But in their haste, they forgot one thing; when they had laid the sacrifice on the altar, they found too late that none of them had brought fire to kindle the wood, and so they left the offering there unburnt, praying the daughter [263] of Zeus to accept it with favour, and went their way. Meanwhile, the men of another city, though they knew not the prophecy concerning the goddess, were zealous to do her honour as soon as they heard the wondrous tale of her birth, being indeed the most pious folk in all the world, and, after the sons of Helios, they were the first of mankind to offer her sacrifice, nor did they neglect to burn it with fire. Therefore the daughter of Zeus came to abide in their city, and was its mighty defender ever after, and because she loved it exceedingly, she made it more glorious than any other city has been, or will be. And from its name, which was Athens, she took her own great name of Athena.

Nevertheless, the goddess was not unmindful of the prayer of the seven princes, whose sacrifice was the first, although it was imperfect, and she asked Zeus to reward them for honouring her, with some gift that would make their city flourish. So Zeus, for her sake, snowed golden snow upon the Isle of the Rose, which sprinkled all the hills with glittering flakes, and filled the valleys with dazzling drifts, till the Sun-god's children and their people were weary of gathering it, and their storehouses were full to overflowing with the wondrous treasure. After this, Athena herself appeared to the seven princes, fair and terrible, in [264] her shining armour, and said to them: "My father has recompensed your good intent towards me with showers of gold, but I will give you a gift far above wealth, even the gift of wisdom. For I have wisdom beyond all the Immortals, except King Zeus, because I was born from his brain, and I can bestow it on whomsoever I will. Now, then, you shall become wiser than the wisest seers, and have such knowledge of all arts and handicrafts that you shall work greater wonders by pure skill than ever the Telchines did in this isle by unhallowed wizardry." And as the goddess promised, so it was; the children of Helios became master-workers in every craft then known among men, and of many more they were the first inventors. No such skilful shipwrights ever lived before, no such cunning artificers in metal, no such marvellous builders of masonry. But most of all their fame went abroad for works which all who beheld them deemed things done by witchcraft, for there was no shape of man, or beast, or bird, but they could make an image of it, molten or graven, so perfectly that it seemed alive. Report of these marvels, and their boundless wealth, drew strangers from all lands to the Isle of the Rose, until the seven princes were forced to build other cities also, because of the multitude of their folk. So, in the after time, the land of the First [265] Roses, the Sun-gods's chosen heritage, became the home of a great people, and its name was famous in all the earth for their riches, and for those same arts which the seven sons of Helios learned by grace of Athena.


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