Home  |  Authors  |  Books  |  Stories  |  What's New  |  How to Get Involved 
   T h e   B a l d w i n   P r o j e c t
     Bringing Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children                 @mainlesson.com
Search This Site Only
 
 
The Golden Porch by  W. M. L. Hutchinson


 

 

PELEUS AND THE SEA-KING'S DAUGHTER

I

[97] ONCE upon a time there was a king's son called Peleus, and he went out into the world to seek his fortune. Many adventures befell him on his travels, and wherever he came he made friends, for he was brave in war and gentle in peace, very strong, and fair to look upon, and as good as he was beautiful. Of all things, he took most delight in hunting, and in those days that sport was perilous, for the whole earth was full of savage beasts. The lion and the bear and the fierce wild boar roamed in the mountains and forests, and men feared them greatly for the harm they did to flocks and herds and crops, so that to slay such creatures was thought fit work for the bravest. Now it chance, as Peleus wandered in the land of Greece, that he came to the house of a king, and the king's son became his friend. But, by great misfortune, one day that the two lads went [98] hunting together, Peleus cast his javelin at a boar, and it flew sideways from his hand and pierced the heart of his comrade. Peleus could not bear to go back to the king with tidings that he son was slain; he fled away in wild grief through the lonely woods, not knowing or caring whither. He was no murderer, yet he had shed blood, and he knew that every one would shrink from him as unclean, till he could find a protector who would aid him to wash away the stain of guilt. Only a king or a priest could do this for him; only these had power, when a man had caused another's death by accident, to purify him from the deed of blood by prayer and sacrifice to the gods. Peleus soon found such a helper. His wanderings brought him to the fair town of Iolcos by the sea, and he made himself known to the king, who received him kindly, and did him the service his besought. There he dwelt for a time, and served that king, whose name was Acastus, with a grateful heart. But the queen, Hippolyta, was the wickedest of women, although fair as a lily, and sweet as honey in all her ways, and, by evil hap, she no sooner cast eyes on the beautiful stranger than she fell in love with him. From that day she thought of nothing but of how to get him into her power, but Peleus seemed to have no eyes for her soft glances, and no ears for her flattering speeches. At last she found him [99] alone one day in a room of the palace, and, cunning woman that she was, began to tell him of a secret treasure that King Acastus had, which she would sell him for a kiss. Peleus, at first, could not understand her words, but when she spoke more plainly, he turned hot with anger, and broke away from her with horror, calling the God of Guestright to witness that never for any bribe would he rob the king, his kind host, of anything that was his. Now the God of Guestright is Zeus, who protects all strangers, and rewards all those who receive them hospitably, moreover, his vengeance falls upon all who return evil for good to their hosts. So he had been well pleased that Acastus befriended Peleus in his need, and that Peleus was grateful, and now from his throne in the sky he heard these words, and remembered them in due time.

Queen Hippolyta's love was of the kind that turns to bitterest hate if it is slighted; her pride was stung by the lad's look of scorn, and now her one thought was how to be revenged on him. She knew that her trusting lord would believe anything she told him, and she resolved in her wicked heart upon a plan by which Peleus should perish, and her own guilt never be known. With sighs and tears she told King Acastus that they were terribly deceived in the stranger who seemed so noble, for he had dared to ask her for the [100] secret treasure, nay, had sought to take it from her by force. Never doubting that the Queen's story was true, Acastus was enraged beyond measure at such black-hearted ingratitude, and swore that Peleus should die for his treachery. Yet, because he was his guest, he would not kill him under his own roof, but took thought how he might destroy him in some other place. Now there was in that country a great mountain called Pelion, covered with forest, where there was good hunting. Many a tall deer had the King and Peleus chased in those green woods and through the glens where the rushing mountain streams went singing down their rocky moss-fringed channels. Acastus thought that he would take Peleus hunting there once more, and after a long day's chase they would rest, as they sometimes did, in a cavern of the hills for the night. Then he would steal the sleeping youth's weapons from his side, and bid his servants put him to death when morning came. But he himself would slip away before it was light, for he would not slay with his own hand one who had eaten his bread and drunk of his cup.

And all would have come to pass as he had planned, but that Zeus did not forget Peleus. After the day's hunting the King and his train went to the cave, and cooked their supper, and lay down to sleep. But in the early dawn Peleus [101] awoke, and looked about him, and saw that his weapons were gone. Acastus, too, was gone, and in the doorway of the cave stood the servants, with white faces and drawn swords, whispering together, for they feared to set upon Peleus, unarmed though he was. Then he sprang up with a cry, and at that they rushed upon him all together. In that instant another cry sounded behind them, and a thundering clatter of horse-hoofs, and as they turned in amaze, a huge four-footed thing came plunging past them and stood at Peleus' side. At that sound and sight the men broke and fled; well they knew what the strange creature was, and once those forests had been full of them, though now they were rarely seen. Peleus also know by report that wondrous double-natured race, called Centaurs, but he gazed in wonder and some fear on what he now saw to be one of them. The Centaur's form was human down to the waist, but there it ended in the body of a powerful horse. Half man, half beast, he seemed at once terrible and mild; his eye flashed fire, and his brawny arms bent the bow he carried with a fierce gesture as he wheeled round to face the terrified servants, yet he had a wise and gentle face, and now bade the astonished youth fear nothing, in a deep and kindly voice.

"You came in a good hour for me," said Peleus, "for those men of the King's were about [102] to kill me, and, as I heard them muttering, they had his commands, What this may mean I cannot guess; I know that I have served him faithfully, and he ever seemed to love me well. But tell me what I must call you, my kind deliverer, and what chance brought you here, and then I in turn will tell you who I am, and all my unhappy story."

"Call me Chiron," said the Centaur, "but ask not, Peleus, what chance sent me hither, for it was no chance, but the providence of Zeus. In your hour of temptation did you not call upon his name? Yes, his all-seeing eye marked that you were true to his law, and those who honour him in secret, my son, he rewards openly. Believe me, he has great things in store for you which I may not speak of now. But as for Acastus, know that his wife brought a lying tale to him, feigning that you had sought to do him that very wrong which she would have bribed you to commit."

Greatly did Peleus marvel how the Centaur could know all this, for he had said no word to any one of the Queen's wickedness, not only because he knew that she would utterly deny it, and none would believe him, but because a brave man will tell no tales of a woman, however bad she may be. Chiron smiled, as though he guessed his thoughts, and took him gently by the hand. "Come, prince," he said, "you see that you need [103] tell me nothing. You will not think that so strange when you know more about myself and about my people who live in the depths of this forest among the silent places of the hills. But now I must take you far up the mountain, where my own dwelling is. It is no palace, such as you have come from, but so keen a hunter as you are will find it a lodging after your own heart, and there must be your home for many a long day."

So they went out of the cave into the morning sunshine, and as they took their way up the steep woodland paths, Chiron began to speak of the Centaurs and the joys of their wild life among the mountains. He told of the far-off days when he himself was young, and first left his mother's side to roam far and wide in the forest. How glorious it had been to felt he strength of his young limbs as he galloped under the waving boughs, or splashed through the clear waters of some shady pool at the foot of a tinkling waterfall! How wonderful, on summer nights, to climb the bare rocky summits of Pelion and look up into another forest, the forest of stars, where the great constellations wandered, the two Bears, and the Pleiades, like a flight of doves, and Orion the Huntsman, with his Dog! In those days, he said, the Centaur folk were many in number and lived at peace, knowing no enemies but the beasts of prey. These they made war upon with bows [104] and arrows, for they had great skill in archery, but they hunted none other of the woodland creatures, and their food was only roots, and acorns and wild berries. Men, whom they seldom saw, they pitied and despised as a feeble and deformed race, and Chiron had heard a story that the poor two-legged things were once a tribe of Centaurs, who angered the gods, and were punished by being cut in half. But Chiron's people had learned at last to fear the puny race more than the fiercest and strongest wild beats, "and, Peleus," he said, "is how it came to pass. There was a great feast made in this land for the wedding of a king's son, to which all were bidden from far and near, even the Centaurs from the hills. Now, none of them had ever tasted wine, nor knew what it was, and when they were given to drink of it at the banquet they thought the gods themselves had not a diviner liquor, and they drank till madness came upon them, so that they began to insult and quarrel with the other guests. Then one of them, starting up, laid hands on the fair bride, crying that he would carry her off for a prize, and the rest, with savage laughter and shouting, seized the maidens, her companions. In a moment that merry feast was turned to a bloody fray; the hall rang with the shrieks of the women and the shouts of the men as they sprang to defend them and struggled with [105] the furious Centaurs, who reared and plunged to and fro, lashing out with their terrible hoofs. Many a man went down in that deadly fight and was trampled to death as he fell, yet, Peleus, my people, for all their mighty strength, were no match for the folk they had despised, for these men, these weaklings, fought with weapons unknown to the Centaurs, with the sword and the spear. And one by one, though the great creatures fought long and stubbornly, they felt the fatal thrust of iron in breast of side, one by one they were struck down, till at last the whole troop lay dead or dying in the hall, and their red blood was mingled on its pavement with the red wine that ran from the overturned wine-jars. Ever since that day those who were left of my people have shunned the face of man, and hidden from him in the loneliest nooks of Pelion. For we have learnt that he is the destined lord of the earth, and where he comes all other creatures must give place, or else obey him. Therefore we, who cannot be tamed any more than our mountain torrents, must die out and disappear from our loved haunts. Soon there will be no more of us, and the time will come when men will even doubt if we ever existed."

"If I were you," Peleus replied, "I should hate the race that you say is ordained to subdue the earth and drive your people before it. How [106] is it then, O Chiron, that you can show yourself so friendly to me, a man, and speak so patiently of the doom you foresee for your kindred?"

Once more his strange guide smiled, and it seemed to the youth that he looked at him with tenderness and with pity. "Dear lad," he said at last, "nothing that lives is so wonderful as man; but the immortal gods, when they gave him gifts above all Earth's other children, gave him also two things to keep him from growing too proud. These things are called Disease and Death. Now the first of these we Centaurs know nothing of, while as for the other, though we cannot live for ever, our natural life is many times longer than yours. You see me, Peleus, still in the prime of my strength, yet have I seen generations of men flourish and fall like the forest leaves. Alas! and I have seen their beauty and their strength decay untimely blighted by cruel sickness. When I saw this, compassion filled my heart, and because I knew that Mother Earth brings forth herbs of healing power for her children's sake, I set myself to learn them all, and to watch how every beast and bird would feed thereon, as its nature taught it, when it was ailing, that so I might become the physician and helper of suffering man. And that, indeed, is how I got my name of Chiron, for it mean 'He with the hands,' and by favour of the gods my [107] hands have laid healing on many an aching head and many a throbbing wound. Marvel not, then, that I have learnt also to love the race of men; do you not know that as soon as you help any one, you begin to love him even against your will?"

As they talked thus together, they came to Chiron's dwelling, which was a long and lofty cavern near the top of the mountain. Here the wise Centaur had been born, and here had lived through many generations of mortal men. Clematis, with its purple blossoms, and dark glossy ivy hung like a rich curtain round the doorway, and close to the threshold a spring of living water welled from out the rock and sent a tiny rivulet across the level greensward, where mountain bees were humming over tufts of wild thyme. The rays of the sun, already drawing westward, lit up the portals of the cave; but far within Peleus could see a dusky, vaulted chamber opening into the very heart of the hill. Out of those dim recesses two figures, in shape like Chiron, came towards him with words of kindly greeting; they were Philyra and Chariclo, the mother and wife of the good Centaur. It seemed that they had known of his coming, for they had dressed him a supper of venison and strewed him a soft bed of grass and leaves covered with deerskins. At sunset the cave [108] was already in darkness, save where a fire of pine logs glowed redly in the centre of its rocky floor, and the tired youth soon slept as soundly in that strange abode as he had ever done in kings' houses.

Chiron's cave, as he had said, was a lodging such as any hunter might desire. Peleus had his fill of hunting every day, and the Centaur taught him all manner of things that belong to woodcraft—the ways of all the wild things great and small, and the note of every bird, and the uses of every plant, and all the signs of the weather. Also he trained him skilfully in all manly exercises, in running and leaping and wrestling and throwing the spear, till he grew swift-footed as a stag, and supple-sinewed as a wildcat, and strong as a mountain bull. But when the dark winter came, and the north wind blew bitter cold through the snow-laden pines, Chiron had other lessons for his guest as they sat before a great fire of logs and fir-cones fashioning bows and arrows, or shaping and carving cups and platters of beechwood. Then he would tell of the brave deeds of famous heroes, some of whom he himself had known and taught in their youth; of Jason, whom he had brought up in that cavern from a child, and how he built the good ship Argo  with wood from that same forest, and sailed her from Iolcos [109] far into unknown seas to find the Golden Fleece. And of another child, Asclepios, whose mother died at his birth, and how he was brought to him, like a lost lamb, in the arms of Hermes, the kind and merry shepherd-god. Chiron thought that the god's touch must have gifted that child with his own love for young and weakly creatures, for Asclepios would never go hunting, but delighted to find and care for baby beasts and birds that had strayed or got hurt. Of all the Centaur could teach him he loved best to learn the art of healing, and at last his skill became greater than his master's, and he went among the cities of men working such wondrous cures that after his death he was honoured as a god, and temples were dedicated to him, which were the first of all hospitals for the sick.

So the mind of Peleus was stored with examples of noble living, and with the wisdom which long experience had taught the good Centaur. Soon he grew to love his gentle teacher as a father, and to wonder more and more what had made him so different from the other Centaurs, who sometimes visited the cave, and who knew nothing, but lived the life of animals. One day he reminded him that he had never said how he came to know what befell in the palace of Acastus, "Have you been her so long," said Chiron, "and never noticed that I, like all my kindred, [110] understand the language of those other children of Earth whom you call dumb? The birds of the air, I must tell you, are great gossips, and the swallows who nest under the palace eaves in Iolcos hear many things worth repeating to their friends the rock-martins, who lodge in the crevices of our rocks. But if you are wondering, as I think you are, why I alone of the Centaurs was not content with lawless, savage ways, but desired to learn wisdom and do the will of the gods, I will tell you a secret. I am not quite the same as the rest of my race, for I have a soul. Ah, Peleus, the life of the Centaurs is like the life of the forest trees, long and vigorous, but it ends at last, and then, like the trees when they fall, we sleep for ever in the lap of Earth. Only to me have the gods given an immortal soul such as they give to men. And having a soul has made me think of many things to which the other Centaurs pay no heed."

"That is very natural," said Peleus. After this, he grew even fonder of Chiron, because he had a soul, just like himself. And they lived happily till spring came to the forest.

II

[111] IN the dim green depths of the sea, where all is calm and silent, while winds are howling and white waves tossing far above, where winter never comes, and strange pale flowers bloom all the year round in forests of rainbow-coloured sea-weeds, there are as many kingdoms and countries as are found upon dry land.

One of the largest of these countries was ruled by the old Sea-King Nereus, and it lay near the shores of Greece. Fathoms down below the blue southland waters stood the Sea-King's palace, built of coral and amber, and roofed with mother-of-pearl, and there he dwelt in peace with the fifty princesses, his daughters.

These maidens were of more than earthly beauty, but the youngest, whose name was Thetis, was the loveliest of them all, and in her childhood she was the darling of the rest, who called her their little queen. Now Nereus, like all the sea-people, was not only immortal, but had the power of foreseeing the future, and so, having already lived hundreds of years, and possessing this gift of prophecy, he had grown exceedingly wise, and the gods themselves often sought counsel of him, for he knew all that had happened in the past, and all that was to come. It befell about the time [112] that Peleus went to dwell with Chiron, that the god Poseidon came from his own sea-palace to the halls of Nereus, desiring some advice, and found him feasting in royal state, sitting on a crystal throne and waited on by the fifty princesses. The ancient King rose up to greet Poseidon, and placed him in the seat of honour at his right hand, and the beautiful Thetis hastened to serve him as cup-bearer. When they had feasted enough, the other sisters began a wonderful dance, and as they danced they sang; their dance looked like the twisting and untwisting of a rainbow, for the moved in seven bands of seven, and the robes of the first seven were violet, of the next rose-coloured, and so on. But Thetis, who was robed in white, sat meanwhile on a silver footstool at her father's feet; this was her birthday, and the dancers sang their love for her and wished her perpetual joy. Poseidon could not take his eyes from the lovely sea-princess, and he thought, "There is none like her, even among the goddesses." The dance ended, and Nereus placed a chaplet of fifty pearls on the head of Thetis, saying, "Each of my daughters, O Poseidon, receives such a coronal as this when she grows up to womanhood, and to-day I crown my youngest and fairest child. No mortal princess had ever so rich a dower, for ever pearl is worth a king's ransom."

[113] "Most wise Nereus," answered Poseidon, "you and I know well that all the riches on earth are poor compared to the hidden treasures of the sea. We know, too, how men will toil and suffer and deal wickedly to gain the gold and gems which we immortals deem but toys and trinkets. Yet I will make bold to say that even the most covetous of men, if he might choose, would rather wed this maiden than possess her crown of pearls."

"Boldly spoken, indeed," said the Sea-King, with a smile. "But enough of this. Be pleased to tell me now what you desire of me, if, as I think, you came seeking counsel."

"To tell you what I desire," said Poseidon, "I must speak more boldly still."

"Do so, my guest," answered Nereus. "Plain speech and noble thoughts are what all look for from Poseidon."

"I would wed Thetis," said the god, looking upon her with his grave blue eyes. "I came hither, Nereus, to ask help of your wisdom, as I have often come before, but I have seen a sight that makes me forget all else. Now, therefore, I ask for this your daughter to be my queen."

"And will you not first ask," said the ancient King, "what my counsel is upon this marriage? How if it be destined to work you evil?"

But Poseidon tossed his dark head and answered, [114] "Nay, I will hear no prophecy. Give me my desire, and let come what come may."

"Shall I give my child," then said Nereus, "to one so headstrong, who will no more heed a warning than the waves whose lord he is?"

At these words, Poseidon's eyes sparkled with anger, and he rose up, drawing his great stature to its full height. "Beware how you refuse me," he cried, "or you shall learn that I am lord not only of the waves but of all that lies below them. Yes, for when Zeus, my brother, took the throne of heaven from our father Chronos, he kept for himself the realms of sky and earth, but to me, his chief helper, he gave dominion over the world of waters. Mine are the seas and rivers, and all that is therein."

"It is even as you say," answered Nereus calmly, "and we, the ancient people of the sea, must own you for overlord, who are of the younger and stronger race of the sky-children. Yet think now, Poseidon, that you can make us afraid. You and your brethren, might though you are, are not the first world-rules we have seen, nor the last we shall see. Trust me, the day will come when your power too shall be broken, when you shall plunge into these twilight deeps to rise no more and find your last refuge in this house of your friends. Grieve not the love we bear you, high-hearted son of Cronos, by violent [115] words, but let us part in peace. If, in a year and a day, your heart is still set on wedlock with my child, then come hither, and you shall have her."

The proud Poseidon's heart was touched by this gentle answer, and his angry mood passed away as suddenly as it came. "Farewell then, old King," he said, "and farewell maidens all, until I come again. Sweetly have you sung in praise of Thetis, but sweeter yet will sound your voices in the joyous bridal-song."

So saying, he went his way to his own palace under the waves.

Now because, as Nereus said, Poseidon was one of the sky-children, he came often to the councils and the feasts that Zeus held with the other Immortals in the heavenly halls. Not long after this, it chanced that, while the gods were gathered at their banquet, they began to debate, Who was the fairest among the goddesses? Some said, Hera, and some, Athena, and some, Aphrodite, but Poseidon kept silence. Then said Zeus, "Brother, you alone have not spoken. For whom will you give your voice?"

"For none here," answered Poseidon, "and therefore have I held my peace. But if Thetis, daughter of Nereus, were to rise from the sea and come among you, your debate were quickly ended. Neither in earth nor heaven is there beauty like hers."

[116] The goddesses heard these words with great disdain, and the gods smiled to hear the unknown sea-maiden preferred to the Queen of Heaven and the Queen of Love. But Zeus was more ready to believe his brother, and he asked where this wonder might be seen. Poseidon told him that the Sea-King's daughters came up on moonlight nights to play and dance upon the shore. "If you would see them," he said, "take the form of some bird, or one of the seals that sleep among the rocks—for if they catch sight of man or god watching them, they dive at once beneath the waves." Poseidon said nothing of his love for Thetis, and in his eagerness for Zeus to see her loveliness he forgot that it might win the heart of his might brother.

But the very next moonlight night Zeus took the form of a sea-eagle, and perched upon a rock as though asleep, and while he watched Thetis dancing with her sisters, her beauty cast a spell upon him, even as it had done upon Poseidon.

He, the King of gods and men, sat musing and silent when the Immortals were gathered again around his table, until the haughty, jealous Hera began to taunt him with scornful words, asking him if he had also seen the sea-witch (for so she called Thetis), and been made dumb by her enchantments.

"I have  seen the daughter of Nereus," he [117] answered, "and little need, proud Queen, has she of witchcraft, for she is yet fairer than Poseidon told us. Neither the Evening nor the Morning Star is so beautiful."

"Make her your Queen, then," cried the angry goddess. "No longer will I be called the wife of Zeus, who affronts me to my face. No, I will go down to Earth, I will journey to the land beyond the sunset and dwell with old Cronos, our banished father, and you, usurper as you are, may share the throne of heaven with what upstart you please. O, a glorious bride, truly, will you set in Hera's royal chair! Green eyes, has she not, and a fish's tail?"

Hera knew quite well that the sea-princesses had no tails (except the mermaids in the north, who belong to a different family), but she wished to say as many unpleasant things as she could. Now what was the grief and anger of Poseidon, when Zeus, instead of soothing Hera, as he often did, answered sternly, "Your will shall be done, wayward goddess! Bear witness, all who hear me, that Hera is my wife no more. To-morrow shall see another Queen in heaven, fairer, ay, and more gentle than this troubler of our peace."

"Nay, O King," cried Poseidon, "this must not be. The daughter of Nereus is my promised bride."

But when he told how Nereus had promised to [118] give him Thetis, if he asked for her in a year and a day, Zeus smiled and said, "My simple brother, the Ancient of the Sea, who know the future, knew that you would not come back in a year and a day, because ere then Thetis will wed another. Do you not see how easily he beguiled you?"

"Bitterly shall he rue it, then," said Poseidon, "yet why should he deceive me? Besides, he said something of evil threatening from the marriage, and it comes into my mind that he would have given me his daughter with good will, but for that very reason."

"What evil might that be?" asked Zeus.

"I cared not to learn it," answered Poseidon, recklessly, "for be it what it may, it shall not turn me from my purpose. Thetis is mine, I say, by her father's promise, and not even you, King of us all, shall take her from me."

Zeus made no answer, but his brow grew black as the storm-cloud, and the glance he darted upon his brother was more dreadful to behold than the red lightning. Poseidon, who flinched not under that awful gaze, which no one else ever dared to meet, flashed back a look of deadly rage, while even Hera sat overawed, and the rest watched affrightedly the faces of those two great brethren, in silence deep as the hush before it thunders. All at once in the tense stillness, the [119] sound of trailing garments was heard without, and there glided into the hall a veiled figure, clad in white. Slowly she moved towards the throne of Zeus, and stood between the angry gods, and stretched out a hand to each. Then, with one mind, all the Immortals rose up in reverence; Zeus himself took the newcomer by the hand, and seated her beside him on the throne.

"Too seldom, holy goddess, do you visit us," he said, "welcome now and always, whatever be your errand. Have you seen some law broken, or some injustice done in the cities of men, that you come veiled among us, as if in sorrow?"

This he said, because that goddess, whose name was Themis, was the guardian of justice and of upright dealing, and was honoured in every city, but her pure eyes could not behold iniquity, and she veiled her face from the sight of wrong-doing. She was, moreover, a very ancient goddess, and had received from Earth, her mother, the gift of prophecy and the knowledge of hidden things.

She now threw back her veil, and turned her calm sad gaze from one to other of the still frowning brother-gods. "It is not by men," she said, "that the invisible altar of Justice has been spurned this very hour. The sky, O Zeus, has darkened at your frown; the sea, O Poseidon, has risen in tempest at your furious voice, and [120] trembling mortals have wondered for what impiety the gods are wroth. But it is you, their judges and avengers, who are now transgressing the sacred laws of righteousness. Shall it be told among the kings of the earth, that the King of the gods put away his wife for a passionate word, and used his power to take the bride promised to his brother? Or shall it be sung among the noble deeds of Poseidon that he defied his King and brother, whom he had sworn to obey as supreme? Cease this unhallowed strife, O sons of Cronos, and turn away your minds from the daughter of Nereus, for were she ten times fairer than she is, you would not wed her, if you could read her fate."

With downcast eyes those high gods listened to the rebuke of Themis, and they answered her never a word. then she rose up to depart, but they both prayed her to tell them first what that fate was, of which she spoke, promising that they would strive no more, but draw lots who should wed the sea-maiden, if they still desired here when they knew all.

"It is ordained," said the wise goddess, "that the son of Thetis shall be mightier than his father. This is the peril of which Nereus would fain have warned Poseidon. For, if one of the greater gods marry her, the son born to them must be so powerful that he may make himself [121] lord of heaven and earth; his strength will be irresistible, and he will wield some weapon more terrible than Poseidon's earth-splitting trident or the thunderbolts of Zeus. Easily would that new god overthrow you all."

When the two gods heard this, they took an oath not to marry Thetis, although Poseidon declared at first that he would not give her up, come what might. But Themis bade him remember that the son born to him would be a danger not to himself along, but to all the sky-children, his kindred, so for their sakes he yielded. Then said Zeus, "What if some other Immortal, perchance one of the Earth-born Giants, our ancient foes, should wed the sea-maiden, and rear a son to overthrow us?"

"Lest that should come to pass," said Themis, "let her be given in marriage to a mortal, then will her child be mortal also. Let the Sea-King's daughter endure the lot of a woman, mingled of joy and sorrow, and look at last on a son fallen in battle."

"Lady of good counsels," said Zeus, "say further, on whom shall we bestow such a bride?"

"There is a king's son called Peleus," answered the wise goddess, "who dwelt of late in Iolcos, and won the praise of all for his upright life. You, O Zeus, know well that the praise was just, [122] and already you have been his protector in peril. Now, if it seems good to you, you may reward him as he deserves."

"It pleases me well," said Zeus; "I have not forgotten that brave youth, nor how Acastus would have destroyed him by treachery. My purpose was to give him a sure refuge with Chiron until the time came for him to avenge the evil deed of the godless King, who dared to break the law of host and guest. Even now he would slay Peleus if he could find him, so bitter is the grudge he bears him. But for this while we will let him alone; soon enough will he pay one price for all."

"So let it be," said Themis; "and now, King of gods, send Hermes with all speed to Chiron's cave. The wise Centaur, when he hears the tidings, will teach Peleus how to win the sea-maiden, and make all things ready for her marriage-feast."

Straightway Hermes put on his shining sandals, which bear him dryshod over sea and land, and departed with his message. The song of birds was loud in the woods of Pelion as the god drew near to the Centaur's cave, and the ground he trod was carpeted with crocus and violets, and the scarlet wind-flower, for it was now the spring-tide. Peleus sat with Chiron in the cavern doorway, and saw one coming towards them through 123 a sunny glad. He thought it was some shepherd lad of the hills, for his eyes were holden, that he might not know the god, but the Centaur knew him, and said, "Hail, friend! What may be your errand here?"

"It is for your ear only," said Hermes.

Then Peleus said: "It is full time, O Chiron, that I went hunting again. I will go in chase of roebuck or wild kid to feast your guest withal;" and so took his weapons and hastened forth. At evening he returned, bringing venison, but the stranger was gone; nor did Chiron speak of him; wherefore Peleus asked no questions, having learned the best of manners from the good Centaur.

Next morning Chiron said to him, "I bethink me, Peleus, that I need the juice of a certain flower, for a salve that I am making. Do me a favour to bring me some of it."

"Willingly," said Peleus; "only tell me what is the flower and where it grows."

"It is the yellow sea-poppy," Chiron answered, "and you will find it blowing on the sea-shore, not many leagues from here. But, to be of any virtue, it must be gathered by moonlight."

"That is easily done," said Peleus. "The moon to-night will be almost full. At sunset I will go down to the sea and gather your poppies while she shines upon them."

[124] So Peleus went down the mountain slopes at evening time, and came upon the cliffs above the sea, and saw the waves break glimmering in the dusk below. Then he sat down and waited till the moon should give him light to find a path down to the beach, and, being wearied, he fell asleep. When he awoke the world was flooded with silver radiance, and, through the warm, still air of the May night, the sound of clear voices singing came mingled with the murmur of the sea. He sprang to his feet, and leapt down the rocks from ledge to ledge, drawn by the magic of that entrancing song. And then, as he reached the shore, he saw the singers, and stood spellbound with wonder and delight. The daughters of Nereus were dancing in maiden mirth on the level sands, not clad now in rainbow-coloured robes, but covered only by their floating hair. Faster and faster flew their little feet, twinkling in the moonlight as if slippered with tinsel, and all the while their shrill sweet song rose up like the singing of a thousand larks. Peleus could have looked and listened for ever, but all too soon one of the sea-maidens, who seemed to lead the dance, passing close beside him, turned her head and looked him in the face. Only for an instant he looked into her deep eyes, in colour like the violet shadows on a sunny sea, then, with a startled cry, she turned and fled into the waves. [125] "Away! away!" cried all the sisters, and, like a flock of white sea-birds, the whole company scurried into the moonlit waters and dived out of sight.

Peleus forgot all about the yellow poppies; slowly and sadly he went back up the mountainside, and came to his cavern home in the grey dawn, and told the good Centaur what he had seen. "O Chiron," he said, "unless your wisdom can help me, I am a lost man from this hour. That song I heard is yet ringing in my ears, and the eyes of that sea-maiden who looked me in the face will give me no rest until I see them again. Tell me how I may approach her and not be seen, for the longing I have to behold her is like a sword in my heart."

"Such pain," said Chiron gently, "must all endure, who, being mortal, look on immortal beauty face to face. Know, Peleus, that she of whom you speak is the youngest and fairest of the daughters of Nereus, the aged Sea-King. Her father, named her Thetis, which means 'Spell-Maiden,' because he knew she would cast a spell of longing upon gods and men. Now, unless you break that spell, you will pine away and die, like the luckless sailors who come to the Isle of the Sirens and listen to their singing. But I will tell you what you must do. Before moonrise to-night hide yourself [126] behind some rock upon the shore, and, when the sea-maidens come, watch until Thetis is so near you that you can seize her in your arms. Then hold her fast until she speaks to you, for when she speaks the spell will break. Remember that the sea-people have many strange powers, but beware, whatever happens, that you do not let her go."

Peleus did as Chiron bade him, and, as Thetis went dancing by, he sprang out from his rock and threw his arms about her. Again, at her sudden cry, did all the other sisters flounce into the waves, never pausing in their flight till they reached their father's hall. But this time the youngest sister came not home with the rest. Peleus felt the sea-maiden tremble for a moment in his strong arms, and then she began to struggle with such violence that he marvelled at the force of her slender body. "Speak to me, Thetis," he cried, "speak but one word, and I will let you go." But Thetis only struggled the more wildly. Silently then they wrestled together in the moonlight, until Peleus began to feel his strength go from him, and his breath came thick and fast. The white limbs of the sea-maiden seemed to grow colder and colder to his touch, so that a shiver ran through him, and he closed his eyes, still clinging desperately to her writhing form. And then, with horror, he [127] felt that form as it were melting in his grasp; he looked again at what he held, and it was no maiden, but a great sea-snake, ringed with green and purple, coiling this way and that to twist itself free. Only its eyes were the eyes of Thetis, and, seeing them, he gripped the creature still closer, though his heart stood still with terror. There came a cloud across the face of the moon, and in the dark those eyes seemed turning into balls of pale green fire. His hands no longer clutched the slippery coils of a serpent, but something furry and sleek; the moon breaking from the cloud showed him the form of a black panther. Yet his heart did not wholly fail him, though the panther snarled fearsomely and drove its sharp claws into his side. As blood-drops from the wound fell on the panther's glossy fur, Peleus could feel it tremble; for one instant it lay still in his arms, and in that instant he cried once more, "Speak to me, Thetis!" but now it gave a spring that well-nigh made him lose his hold, and he tripped over a stone and fell headlong. Furiously struggled the panting beast as they rolled upon the sand, hither and thither it dragged him while still he held on grimly, setting his teeth and straining every muscle in a last despairing effort. Its form seemed to swell and change colour before his failing eyes; surely now it was a huge tawny thing he fought with, and [128] his fingers were locked in a shaggy mane! All at once the hollow roar of a lion rent the silence; he saw its gleaming fangs and felt them fasten on his arm. "This is the end of me," he thought, but he would not let go. Gathering all his strength he seized it by the throat with his other hand, to strangle it if he could. The lion, half-throttled, shook its mighty head, and bounded madly towards the water's edge, carrying Peleus along with it. He lost his footing again on a seaweed-covered rock, and, falling heavily, lay there stunned.


[Illustration]

PELEUS WRESTLES WITH THETIS.

When he came to himself, his face was wet with sea-water; the moon was down, and at first he could only see that shadowy form crouched near. Still dazed, he sat up, and lifted his arm to look at something, long and brown and lustrous, in his clenched hand. Was it a lock of the lion's mane, or a ribbon of sea-wee? "You are pulling my hair," said a soft voice close by, and at that sound Peleus burst into tears of joy.

The sun had risen out of the eastern sea, but the dew lay yet in myriads of diamond drops upon the upland lawns, when Peleus and Thetis, hand in hand, began to climb the mountain path that led across them into the green forest. They had sat till daybreak by the grey lapping waves, for when the spell was broken, it seemed that the Sea-King's daughter had many things to say to [129] the mortal how had conquered her. She told him how her people have the power, if any take them captive, of changing their shape three times, but if they fail to break free in the third shape, they must return to their own; and how, when she quitted the form of a lion, she had thought to plunge into the sea, but could not because, in his swoon, his hand was still clenched upon her hair. And how, even as she wounded him in her struggle, a strange new anguish came upon her at the sight of his blood, so that she longed to speak, but the wild sea-nature in her locked her lips.

"Then, Peleus," she said, "as I watched you lying there so pale, with shut eyes, I thought, 'This is death, of which I have heard tell, but never saw till now,' and it seemed to me so cruel a thing to die, and look no more upon the sunlight, that I, who had never wept, shed bitter tears upon your face."

"Was it your tears I felt?" said Peleus, "and not the salt sea-spray? O Thetis, may they be the last, as they were the first, to fall from your eyes." But, alas! they were not the last, nor the most bitter.

Now, as they talked together, it was as if they had known each other always, and now were met again after long absence, such joy they had in the sight and speech of one another. And when Peleus said, "I can never leave you again, Thetis," [130] she answered, "There is no need, for I am happier with you than I have ever been before." "Come then," said he, "I will bring you to the cave of the good Centaur, who is to me as a father." And he told how Chiron had saved his life from the men of King Acastus, and all else that he had done for him. "But now," he said, "I owe Chiron my life twice over, for had he not sent me to gather sea-poppies, I might never have seen you, and had he not counselled me to hold you fast whatever befell, surely I must have let you go, and then my heart would have gone with you under the sea, and I have perished in my despair."

Thetis smiled, and as they left the beach, she stooped and gathered a handful of the yellow poppies, saying, "Let me bring these flowers to Chiron, since it was through me that you went back to him empty-handed."

So they went on together into the heart of the forest, and ever as they went, the sea-maiden looked about her and cried out for pleasure like a child at the wonderful new things she saw, and the new music that she heard among the boughs. She thought, indeed, that it was the trees she heard singing; for though she could see the birds flit through the branches, she did not know they were not dumb, like the flocks of painted fishes that hovered among the coral groves of her own garden. She wondered, too, that the wild flowers [131] would not uncurl their petals when she stroked them, like the sea-anemones, and because nothing has any scent under the sea, the wood-violets and little wild hyacinths puzzled her very much. "I think these flowers at least can sing," she said to Peleus, "although you say the trees cannot, for something comes from them like strange soft music, only, instead of hearing it, I seem to breathe it."

The only thing that did not surprise her filled Peleus in his turn with great wonder; every bird and beast would come to her when she called it, ringdoves and woodpeckers came fluttering round her, the baby rabbits scuttled to her feet, and even the busy squirrels hurried down from the tree-tops to look at her with wise bright eyes. "Little brother" or "little sister" she called them all, for she knew none of their names, till Peleus told her. At noon they rested, and drank of a spring that flowed from under a mossy rock, and in an oak hard by, where bees were coming and going, Peleus found a great store of honey, and Thetis thought the honeycomb more delicious fare than the food of the gods.

Towards evening they came to the cave, and the Centaur met them upon the threshold. "This is the Sea-King's daughter, O Chiron," said Peleus, "and she had brought you the yellow poppies."

[132] "That is well, my son," said the Centaur, with his grave, kind smile, "for I see that you have need of the salve which I was preparing for you." And at these words the sea-maiden looked at the wounded arm of Peleus, and hid her face in her hands. But Chiron laid his hand on her bent head and asked her, "Are you content, daughter of Nereus, to abide with this mortal, whom you have followed hither?" Then she looked up and said, "I am content. Where he dwells, I will dwell, and where he goes, I will go. Though he is a mortal man, and must bear the lot of men, will not the high gods be gracious to one who is fair and noble as themselves?"

"The gods," answered Chiron, "are well pleased, O Thetis, that you should wed this youth, for they desire to honour him to the utmost, because he has been found faithful and true of heart. Nay, more, it is their pleasure to come as guests to your marriage-feast, and ere long they will be here. It is the night of the full moon, and happiest are the bridals on which she looks down in all her splendour. Come within, my children; the sun sinks apace, and Philyra and Chariclo wait to array the bride."

Then they went in, and saw that Chiron had made ready a great feast, and they marvelled at his foreseeing of what had befallen. As the sun set behind the hills, dim shapes began to move [133] rustling through the silent woods, and the lights of pine-torches twinkled in the gloom of leaf-canopied aisles. Peleus, whose tired limbs Chiron had bathed and anointed with the healing balm, came to the doorway, and looked forth into the gathering dusk. He saw the lights, which drew slowly nearer, and heard a noise as of a herd of deer pattering over the fallen leaves, and above it the sound of wild, sweet music. Soon he was aware of a strange company coming towards him, with torches and with garlands, playing on pipes of reed, and dancing as they came. It was a troop of Fauns, he knew, for he had once or twice caught sight in the forest of one of those shy creatures, like a beautiful sunburnt boy, but goat-footed, and with curved horns peeping out from the curls on his brow. And now, from the grey stems of the great trees around came gliding the tree-fairies, the lovely Dryads, one of whom dwelt in every tree, and had her life bound up with its life, so that when it fell she was no more. There came also, following the piping of the Fauns, whatever beast or bird is awake by night; owls with solemn eyes, and prowling foxes, and a wolf with her cubs, and a lion, that rolled at Peleus' feet like a great dog. When all were gathered about the cavern-door, the first beams of the May moon lit up the open space before it as she rose above the tree-tops. Then suddenly [134] the air was filled with melody so divine that the Fauns played no more, but threw down their pipes and listened with awe-struck faces. Louder grew the strain, as of harps and voices mingled, and now through the clear heaven above rolled a peal of thunder, and a trembling shook the ground, while a great voice cried aloud, "We are come, O Chiron, to the marriage of the Sea-King's daughter." At that voice the Fauns and Dryads bowed themselves to the ground, and Peleus also. He heard the Centaur answer from the threshold, "Hail, Lords of heaven and sea, enter this my dwelling, for all things are ready," and lifting up his eyes, he saw before him a throng of bright-robed forms, and in the midst of them two kings, glorious to look upon. These cast gracious glances on him as they passed into the cave, while the celestial chant rang out again from the lips of their followers, mingled with the clear harmonies of the golden lyre that one among them played upon. Last of that company came that same shepherd lad whom Peleus had seen three days ago, but now transfigured by the bloom and radiance of a god, so that he knew him to be Hermes. The messenger of the Immortals now took him by the hand, bidding him hail, and they went in together after the rest. The great and lofty cavern-chamber was ablaze with torchlights, and the heavenly guests were [135] seated in a half-circle on the rock-hewn bench that ran round its upper end, tables covered with all manner of woodland fare being set before them. In the highest place, between Zeus and Poseidon, sat the Sea-King's daughter, veiled with a veil of silvery sheen; it was woven out of gossamer and moonbeams by the forest spiders, who weave all the robes for the Dryads. Hermes led Peleus through the hall and placed him beside her, while all the Immortals gave him greeting in joyous tones. And now the feast went forward with mirth and laughter and rejoicing, and the gods praised Chiron's good cheer, the venison and oaten cakes and mountain-honey, and drank the wine he poured for them into the carved beechwood bowls. Peleus was glad to see that the good Centaur had made the forest guests welcome also; the Fauns were feasting merrily, couched on deerskins at the lower end of the cavern, and all the beasts and birds had their share of such food as they liked best. As for the Dryads, they ate only honey, and drank a wine that the Centaur had brewed from elder-blossom. When all had their fill of banqueting, Apollo took up his lyre and played, while the violet-crowned Muses rose up and sang together. First they sang the praise of Zeus their father, lord of all, and next of the lovely bride, the pearl of the sea, whom the gods had bestowed on Peleus for his exceeding [136] great reward. The youth blushed deeply as he listened, for now they told of his coming to the house of Acastus, the false Queen's love for him, and how he was faithful to the King, his host. Then, as Apollo struck a deeper chord from the pealing lyre, his own voice began to lead the choral song, chanting words of prophecy. For he, the minstrel of the gods, is also their seer, having received from Themis herself that gift of divining which Earth, her mother, gave her. So now, with wide eyes gazing before him, as though he saw a vision, the god sang thus of the days to come. A wondrous child, the son of Peleus and Thetis, shall be reared in this cave by Chiron's fostering care. That child, even from six summers old, shall hurl his small javelin with true aim and godlike strength at bear and lion that prowl near the cavern's mouth, and drag their still panting carcases to the Centaur's feet. And Artemis, goddess of the chase, and valiant Athena, will come many a time to watch unseen those feats of the little hunter. But when the boy, trained and taught by the wise Centaur in all noble ways, comes to the prime of his glorious youth, then, in the company of princely warriors, he shall cross the seas and do battle with mailed hosts beneath the walls of a far city, and win himself an everlasting name. For, ages after that city has fallen amid flames and slaughter, the lips of a mortal minstrel, poor and blind, will sing the deeds of [137] the son of Thetis in such a deathless lay that his memory shall endure till the end of time.

The song ceased, and all who heard it sat awhile in silence, musing on that prophecy. Then Zeus arose, and said, "The song of Apollo is his marriage-gift to Peleus and to Thetis; now will I declare what is mine. Peleus, in the strength I will give him, shall overthrow with his single spear Acastus and all his soldiery, and reign as king in his stead. Moreover, to him and his children's children I will give wide kingdoms in other lands of Greece."

Then said Poseidon, "And I will make Thetis queen of the coasts and headlands and all the bays around them, where this land borders on the seas of her ancient home, so shall she return as a great princess, when she visits her father Nereus."

The rest of the gods also made promise of gifts and each of the goddesses decked the Sea-King's daughter with a golden necklace or girdle or bracelet of her own, wrought by the cunning hand of Hephaestus, the divine craftsman. It was now midnight, and the torches began to burn low in the vaulted chamber; once more Apollo's lyre was heard, but now he played a stately marching measure, and all the guests passed singing together out of the cavern. Peleus and Thetis rose up and followed them into the moonlight, for Chiron said, "Go now, my children, [138] with those who will lead you to the home prepared for you." Now when they came forth upon the lawn, the heaven-dwelling gods were gone; only the Fauns, with relighted torches, and the Dryads, with hands full of flowers, thronged about them with laughter and with greetings. And so, led by the forest people, to the sound of their sweet wild pipings, they went together into the green heart of the woods. The owls hooted softly overhead as they went along, and the wolf cubs trotted beside them, till they came to the hunting-lodge which Peleus had built for himself of unbarked fir-logs, and thatched with reeds and moss. The door stood open, and they saw a wood-fire burning on the hearth within. Then, because he knew that a bride must not set foot upon the door-sill when she is brought home, Peleus lifted the Sea-King's daughter across the threshold in his arms, and they two were left alone.

III

IT was summer once again in the green forest, when Chiron lay one evening in the doorway of his cave, thinking of the young, beloved guest who housed with him so long. He had seen Peleus no more since his marriage-night; but he had heard how King Acastus sought for him [139] far and near to take his life, and how vengeance overtook that persecutor at last. For, according to the promise of Zeus, Peleus had gone down to Iolcos and taken it single-handed, putting to rout the King and all his host with no helper but his own good spear. Now he slew Acastus in the fight, and when the wicked Queen Hippolyta saw what was done, she hanged herself. So Peleus was lord of the city, but he loathed it when he thought on the end of those two. Therefore, he sent for valiant princes, he friends, out of the north country, and gave them the city to dwell in, and himself went to that country and ruled it in their stead. And there, as Chiron heard, he built a fair palace by the sea for the daughter of Nereus.

While the old Centaur was thus musing in the twilight, Peleus himself came softly over the mossy turf and stood beside him. But Chiron, wrapped in thought, neither saw nor heard his coming. Then Peleus gently laid a bundle, rolled in a purple cloak, at his friend's feet, and a tiny cry came from the bundle. At that Chiron started up, and saw who was come to him, and he gave Peleus loving greeting. "My son," he said, "often have I longed to see your face again, and even now I was thinking of you. But what cry did I hear at hand, like the cry of a motherless lamb? Alas, why weep you at these words?"

[140] "O Chiron," said Peleus, "it is indeed a motherless lamb I bring you," and he unrolled the cloak and put a yellow-haired babe into the Centaur's arms. "Take my little son," he said, "and be tender to him, with the tenderness you show to every helpless thing, for there is none to rear him in my desolate house." And for very grief he could say no more. But the babe, who was beautiful as the day, looked into Chiron's wise old face and smiled, and Chiron said, "See, already he is without fear, this child who is to be so great a warrior." Then he called Philyra and Chariclo, those gentle nurses of many a hero, and gave the babe into their keeping; but he himself made ready supper for Peleus without more words, for he saw that his sorrow was great. Nor did he ask him any more questions till he had cheered him with food and wine, and they were sitting together, as of old, beside the hearth. Then, laying his hand on the young man's shoulder, he said, "Will you not tell me now, my son, what this sorrow is, which I can but guess at, that if I cannot help you, at least I may strive to comfort you?" "Little I thought," said Peleus, "when I left this cave the happiest of mortals, that ever I should come back with such tidings as I must tell you now. The daughter of Nereus has forsaken me and our child, and gone back to the Sea-King's halls. She told me at the beginning that [141] she must leave me for ever the first time I crossed her in anything, for such, she said, is the way of all the sea-people. And when the babe was born, I woke one night and saw here steal out of our chamber carrying it in her arms, and I followed her, to see what she would do. She went into the hall, , where the fire still burned on the hearth, and there, horror-stricken, I saw her thrust the child into the glowing embers. Who could see that and not do as I did? Yet the reproachful look Thetis gave me, as I snatched the babe from her, pierced me to the soul. 'Did I not warn you,' she said, 'never to cross me? Had you not hindered, I would have made the child weapon-proof from head to heel by the power of flame. But I must leave that word undone. Farewell, farewell!' With that, quick as a lightning-flash, she darted from the hall and from the palace, and flung herself into the sea."


[Illustration]

THE CHILD ACHILLES BROUGHT TO CHIRON.

Chiron listened without wonder to this strange story, for he knew both the nature of the sea-people and the magic they can work. "Be comforted, Peleus," he said; "remember how Apollo prophesied in his song that your son should be reared in this cave of mine; it was fated, then, that his mother should thus leave him. And though Thetis is lost to you now, yet if you wait patiently, sure I am that she will come to you again at last, never to leave you more. For [142] happiness must come, in the end, of bridals which the high gods blest with their presence."

The kindly Centaur's words soothed the grief of Peleus, and brought him new hope. "I will be patient," he said; "and as for the child, I remembered the song of Apollo, and it lightened my heart a little to think of his growing up in your care, my wise and tender teacher. But tell me now, why Thetis said her work was not finished, and by what magic the babe passed unhurt through the flame?"

"Fire has no power on the bodies of the Immortals," said Chiron, "nor on any living thing, so long as an Immortal has hold of it. So the babe was safe while Thetis held it, and its flesh is weapon-proof wherever the flame touched it, for what fire does not burn, it makes unwoundable. But to finish her work, Thetis must have plunged the child into the fire a second time, because where her hand grasped it, there the flame could not reach."

"She held it by one heel," said Peleus.

"That heel, then," said the Centaur, "is the one spot where your son can be wounded."

Thus they talked together till far into the night, and on the morrow Peleus separted to his own home. At his going, Chiron asked him what he should call his son, and he said, "Achilles is the name his mother gave him."

[143] The little Achilles was the fairest and the most bold-hearted of all the good Centaur's foster-children, and soon was dearer to him than even the beautiful Jason had been, or Asclepios the healer. In his very babyhood, he began to love the hunter's sport not less than Peleus his father did, and his first plaything was a little bow and arrow that he begged for as soon as he could speak. With these he would shoot from the doorway of the cave at prowling wolf or bear, but when he was six summer old, he could not be content till Chiron gave him leave to go hunting in the forest. And that day another prophecy was fulfilled, for at sunset the Centaur, looking forth from the cavern, saw the little boy running towards him, dragging the still panting carcase of a huge wild boar, and he saw too, though Achilles could not, two stately forms moving beside him. One was clad in shining armour, with a golden helm upon her golden hair, and a great spear in her hand; the other, still taller, and slender as a young poplar, wore the short garb and leathern buskins of a hunter, and carried a silver bow. It was the great Athena, and Artemis, the Lady of the Wild Things, who walked, smiling, beside the marvellous child, and not then only, but through all his boyhood, they loved to watch his daring, and his strength like a young god's.

Now Chiron taught Achilles all his precepts [144] of wisdom, and the perfect ways of honour and courtesy, but warrior-skill and hunting-craft he had no need to teach him, for they were his by nature. So swift of foot was he, that he could run down the hart and the roebuck; so strong, that he could take bison and boar alive, without help of hounds or hunting-nets. And though he had seen no weapon but bow and spear, of those he had such mastery from his infant days, that Chiron knew no warrior could stand against him.

So the years went by, until Chiron heard from the birds, his newsbringers, that a great war was toward, for a king in the South was gathering a mighty host to sail against a distant city. And Troy, the birds told him, was the city's name. When Chiron heard that, he called Achilles to him, and said, "My child, it was in this cave that your mother's marriage feast was held, and all the gods came to it, to bless the bridals, and bright Apollo uttered in song the destiny that was in store for you. I see now the beginning of those things which he foretold, and the time is come for you to return to your father's house, that you may go the way Fate has prepared for those swift feet of yours. Farewell, last and dearest of my fosterlings; I know that I must see your face no more, and yet I cannot grieve at your departing, when I remember Apollo's prophecy and the glory that you are so soon [145] to win." Thus he took leave of the youth, and sent him away that same hour to Phthia, the country of Peleus in the North. Achilles found his father dwelling in the palace by the sea, which he had called the House of Thetis, in honour of his bride. Peleus beheld him with joy, and said, "Welcome, my beloved son; I know you are come at the good Centaur's bidding, for he promised me long ago to send you home to me when the right time came."

Now Thetis had learnt from Nereus, who could foresee it all, what her child's doom must be, if ever he went to war, and when the old Sea-King told her that messengers were even then on their way to seek him in the house of Peleus, and summon him to the gathering of princes against Troy, she resolved to prevent them. She rose up through the sea that night, and glided silently to the bedside of Achilles, and carried him away in his sleep to an island called Scyros. So, when he awoke, behold he was lying on an unknown shore, and saw a strange and beautiful lady bending over him. Then Thetis made herself known to her son, and prayed him, if he had any love for his mother, to do what she would now bid him without questioning, for if he would not, she said with tears, a grievous thing must befall her. And Achilles promised to obey her, remembering the teaching of Chiron, how he said [146] that next to the immortal gods, father and mother must be reverenced. Forthwith Thetis dressed the youth in a broidered robe, and when she had combed out his long fair hair with a comb of pearl, he seemed a tall blooming maiden. "I will bring you now," she said, "to the king of this isle, who is a friend to me and my people, and will say to him that you are a maid I have saved from shipwreck. At my request, he will lodge you for a while with the princess, his daughter, and do you, for my sake, take heed that no one discoveres you are not what you seem."

So she brought him to the king's house, and he became the loved companion of the young princess and her maidens; and in their games, the new playmate was always winner, but in weaving and spinning was so clumsy that they made great sport of her.

But the day after Thetis stole away Achilles, those messengers whom she feared came to Peleus saying, "King Agamemnon is marshalling a host to sail against Troy, and princes who love peril and renown are gathered to him from many lands. We are come from him to greet you, and to pray you to send your young son along with us, for a seer has revealed that Troy cannot be taken save by a warrior sprung from Peleus."

"He shall surely go with your host," answered [147] Peleus, "and not alone, for I will send fifty ships, well manned, to Agamemnon's aid."

Then he sent to call Achilles before the messengers, but he could not be found. Now the messengers were King Agamemnon's herald, and a certain prince by name Odysseus. This Odysseus was the wiliest of men, and the most keen-witted, and it came into his thought that Peleus had heard of the war, and hidden his son betimes that he might not go into danger. "Swear to us, King," he said, "that you are not beguiling us, for how can your son have gone hence, and you know nothing of it?" Peleus had a mind to give him an angry answer, but he refrained himself, and called Zeus to witness that he knew not what was become of Achilles. "This, then, is the work of some god," said Odysseus, and he departed with the herald. Now this subtle prince was very greatly favoured by Athena, for that goddess loves valour much, but prudence more, and Odysseus, though no coward, was better in council than in fight. So he had not gone far on his road, when she met him in the likeness of an old seaman, and said, "The lad you seek, Odysseus, is in Scyros, for I saw him there." "I will take ship and go find him," said Odysseus . "That will not be easy," said the seeming old man; "he dwells in the king's house in the guise of a maiden, and none had guessed his secret but [148] myself, who knew his face aforetime." "Nevertheless, I will go," said Odysseus, "for I think I know a way to tell a youth from a girl—and disguise is a trick that others can play besides Achilles."

Not many days after, an old pedlar came to the king's house in Scyros, and the princess and her maidens flocked into the hall to see his wares. The pedlar spread out his great pack, and showed them all his rarities—snowy lawn of Cyprus, shawls of Tyrian purple, necklaces of amber, and golden girdles studded with Eastern turquoise. He eyed the girls keenly while they eagerly fingered the trinkets, and chaffered with him over such as pleased their fancy, and he marked that one only looked carelessly on, and chose nothing. And to her the princess said, "Pyrrha, my sweet, do you care for none of these pretty thing? Come, choose some jewel, what you will, and let me make you a gift of it." But Pyrrha answered, "Nay, dearest princess, I have no mind to any of these baubles." At that, the pedlar smiled, and the princess said to him, "Old man, have you shown us all your store? If you have kept some choice trinket to the last, as pedlars use, let Pyrrha see if it pleases her better than the rest."

"Gracious lady," said the pedlar, "I have on thing left, but it is no toy to please a maiden." [149] So saying, he drew from its wrappings a sword of rare workmanship, ivory-hilted, with golden lions inwrought on its blade of dark-blue steel. Pyrrha's eyes sparkled at sight of it; she took it from his hand, poised it in her own, and cried, "This is the gift for me, if the pedlar asks not too great a price for such a goodly weapon."

"It is yours without a price," answered the pedlar, "if you dare use it—Achilles!" And suddenly he tore off beard and coarse mantle, and stood before them a bronze-corsleted warrior. For he was none other than Odysseus, and this was how he found the son of Peleus. "There is some treachery," cried the princess, and she fled out of the hall with the other maidens. Achilles was both ashamed and angry that he had betrayed himself to this cunning stranger, but Odysseus with artful words soon changed his mood, telling hi of the glory to be won at Troy, and how Peleus himself desired to send him with twenty ships to that war. Then Achilles forgot all else in eagerness for that great adventure, and would have sailed that very hour in the ship of Odysseus which waited him in a lonely bay, but he said, "If I go with you to the host in these maiden's robes, I shall be shamed for ever." "That have I cared for," said Odysseus, and he unrolled a bale of fine linen, and took out a suit of armour, and clad the youth in it, girding him with the [150] sword. At that moment the King came in to them from the fields, for he had been watching the sowers, and his daughter had run to him there. "Ah, son of Thetis," he said, "you, then, were the maiden your mother bade me harbour. I guesses so much, when I heard my daughter's tale, for I knew Achilles was the name that gracious sea-queen gave her child. Now, as I hear, you are found by this stranger. Let me understand, I pray, what brings him here." Straightway Odysseus told his errand, and to win the King upon his side, he declared the prophecy that Troy could not be taken without help of one sprung from Peleus. This the King no sooner heard than he desired to have alliance with the youth who was destined to such greatness, and said, "How blessed is Peleus, who has a son so highly favoured of the gods. Would that I too might hear Achilles call me father." "King of Scyros," said the youth, with a rosy blush, "if your fair daughter can love Achilles as she loved Pyrrha, it would please me well to call you by that name. But this is no time for marrying or giving in marriage, and I must begone."

"Nay," said the King, "what needs such haste? Let Odysseus go to Phthia and take the fifty ships your father promised to where the hose is mustering, and stay you here meanwhile. We [151] will have your wedding this very day, and in seven days you also shall sail to the trysting-place. So will no time be lost, for Odysseus will take seven days in going and returning."

And Odysseus consented to go, but before he left them he said, "I hear of you, Achilles, that you hate a lie worse than death. Pledge me your word, therefore, that in seven days you will come without fail to the harbour of Aulis, for that is the trysting-place." So Achilles gave his word, and forthwith Odysseus departed.

Now the King had told his daughter whom he guessed Pyrrha to be, and she wept bitterly because her loved playmate was no maiden, as she thought, but a youth who perhaps had scorned her all this time in secret for her girlish ways. And she had offered him one of those glittering trifles (baubles, he called them, truly), whose rightful wear was the armour of a prince! It seemed to her that she could never look him in the face again for very shame, and she stole away by herself, and went down to the seashore, and sat there, weeping. Presently she began to reproach Thetis aloud for what she had done, calling seaward, and saying, "O Lady of the waves, why have you dealt so evilly with us? Do not we of this isle honour you and your sisters above all the goddesses, because of your kindly help to our fishermen? Many a boat [152] have you brought safe to shore in tempest, many a great shoal of tunny have you driven into their nets, but have we ever forgotten to be grateful? If you had trusted my father with the truth about the guest you brought him, I had not been shamed this day."

Then Thetis, rising through the deep, came to her where she sat, and she too was weeping. "King's daughter," she said, "it was to save my child from doom that I hid him here, for he must fall in battle if he goes where the hateful Odysseus seeks to take him. Yes, it was Odysseus, that crafty fox, who played the pedlar, and now he has found Achilles, he will bend him to his purpose with cunning words. But you, if you have any pity for my son, may save him yet."

"I would give my life for his," said the princess, casting down her eyes; "only tell me what I must do." Thetis smiled through her tears, and answered, "I will tell you that on our way to the palace. Come, let us be going, for I am in haste to meet my son." So as they went together, Thetis told the princess that she was to be married to Achilles that same day, and prayed her to keep him from going forth to Troy. "How can I do that?" asked the princess. "Ask him what he will give you for a bride-gift," said Thetis, "and he will bid [153] you choose what you will. Then say you choose the granting of the first request you make to him, and let that request be, that he will not leave you for a year."

Now when they came to the palace, they found all things ready for the marriage, and the maidens were waiting to deck the bride in her finest jewels and array, and when they had attired her, Thetis set her own crown of pearls on her hair, saying, "These are the bride-price my son pays on his marriage, as the custom is." Then were Achilles and the princess wedded, with pomp and great rejoicings, and the King held a feast for all comers. And after the marriage, the princess sought a gift from Achilles, as Thetis had counselled, and he bade her choose what she would. "I desire nothing but this," she said, "that you will grant the first request I shall make."

"Deidamia," said Achilles (that was the name of the princess), "I love you too well to refuse anything you ask me, if it be not against my honour to do it. Prove me now, and let me hear your first request." But when she asked him to stay with her for a year, he told her that could not be, for he had given his word to Odysseus to set sail for Aulis in seven days. Nor could all her tears and entreaties move him to break his promise, although his sould was [154] troubled at her distress. So, on the seventh day they parted, with many a tender, sad farewell; heavy were their young hearts that day, and dark forebodings came to them that they should see each other no more for ever. Yet Achilles comforted his bride as best he might, bidding her hope for his return with a victor's spoils from the war, and then, not to grieve him too sorely, she feigned better cheer, and looked her last on him with a smile. Thus the son of Peleus and the Sea-King's daughter went forth to Troy, as it was ordained; but what befell him there of sorrow and glory we leave untold, for such matters are too high and moving for a mere fairy-tale.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  | Previous: The Prince Who Was a Seer  |  Next: The Lad with One Sandal
Copyright (c) 2000-2017 Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.