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


 

 

THE PRINCE WHO WAS A SEER

I

[51]

H
ERA, Queen of the gods, had stately shrines in many cities, but the one she loved best was her great and ancient temple near the rich city of Argos. For the folk of Argos honoured her above all the gods, with sacrifices and solemn feasts, as Lady of the land, and men called them the people of Hera. Now there was once a king in Argos who had three daughters, and they were the proudest princesses ever seen. Every year in the spring time all the maidens of the land, crowned with flowers and decked in their best array, went in procession to Hera's temple to offer her gifts and garlands and a veil broidered with lilies, in remembrance of her bridal with King Zeus. Then the priestess would cover the image of the goddess with the shining veil, and crown it with a wreath of scarlet pomegranate blossom, and it was borne in state to the city on a car drawn by white oxen, while all the people came forth to meet it with great rejoicing, and choirs of youths and maidens chanted wedding hymns in honour of Hera the Bride. The three [52] daughters of the King went every year to the temple with the other maidens, but in their pride of heart they could not endure to see the splendid pomp of that procession, and hear the praises of the goddess, while they themselves walked unnoticed in the throng; and they said one to another, "Are not we as fair and as royal as this Bride of Zeus? Nay, who knows if Hera's beauty be so great, after all, who has seen her? But if that ancient image is her true likeness, the gods have an ugly queen indeed." So at last they would not go to the temple on the festival day, but sat at home, and when the image was borne past the palace they looked down from a window and mocked it aloud, saying, "What ancient dame have you there, good people? Since when do grandmothers masquerade as brides?" The people trembled at these impious words, and the priestess cried aloud to the King to rebuke his daughters, but he laughed and answered heedlessly, "Let Hera rebuke them if their words displease her." Then said the priestess, "Both you and they, O King, shall learn that it is no light thing to insult our divine lady." With that she bade the drivers of the oxen turn them back to the temple, and the people went in silence to their homes.

That very night Hera sent a frenzy upon the [53] three princesses, and they rushed in madness out of the city and roamed with strange cries among the fields. Their father went in search of them with the first light, but they knew him not, and fled away, shrieking, to the hills above the city. There they wandered for many days, and none could come near them, for when any approached, they bounded away like things possessed, and swifter than flying deer. Then the King in his despair sent messengers everywhere to offer great rewards to whoever would heal his daughters of their madness, and there came to him a seer out of the West country, whose name was Melampus. He was the son of a king, and he became a seer in this way. One day that he hunted in the woods he lay down to rest, being wearied, and fell asleep, and while he slept two young snakes crept out from their hole and licked his eyes and ears with their soft, forked tongues. Melampus awoke, and heard one snake say to the other, "This is the man who spared our lives when his servants found our nest last spring and slew our mother." With that they glided away, and then, lying still in deep amaze, he heard the birds also talking together, and understood all they said. Thus he became a seer, and a great physician as well, for his eyes were opened to see visions, and his ears to hear all that the wild creatures tell each other about the healing virtues of herbs and [54] flowers and springs of water. Melampus told the King of Argos that he would heal his daughters for a price, but when the King asked what it was, he answered, "The half of your kingdom." This the King would not grant, and he sent him away. But soon the same madness came also upon the women of the land, so that they too fled out of their homes and wandered distracted about the hills. Then the people, who had heard what the seer had demanded, earnestly besought the King to send after Melampus, and give him anything he asked to take away this plague from them. So Melampus was brought back, and the King offered him half the kingdom. But now the seer said that he would do nothing unless the King would give him two-thirds of the land. Even this the King was constrained to grant, lest the people should rise against him if he did not find means to rid them of the wrath of Hera, which his daughters had brought upon their wives and children. And the seer took men with him to the hills, and made them drive the herd of women gently before them towards a certain stream, and as they passed through its waters in flight from their pursuers they were healed of their madness, the three princesses with the rest. Thus Melampus became king over two-thirds of the land of Argos; one-third he kept himself, and gave one-third to Bias, his [55] brother. But the three proud princesses, because they had despised Hera the Bride, never became brides themselves, and their father likewise came to no good end, because he had laughed instead of reproving them.

Melampus and Bias loved each other well, and reigned in peace for many years, but after their death their sons and grandsons began to be at feud about the kingdom, each desiring to make himself lord of all Argos. At last, when the Prince Adrastus, grandson of Bias, reigned in his father's stead, he took to himself the inheritance of the grandson of Melampus, who was yet a child, pretending that he would hold it in trust for his young kinsman. Also he took the child away from the servants who had the care of him (for his father and mother were dead), and brought him up in his own palace, and forbade his own servants on pain of death to let him learn that he was a king's son. So this little prince, who was called Amphiaraus, grew up in the house of Adrastus, and none dared tell him that he had a right to half the kingdom. He had for playmate a beautiful little girl, Eriphyle by name, who was the younger sister of Adrastus, and he came to love her very dearly, in spite of one great fault that she had—she was the most covetous little maiden that ever lived. She could not see her playfellow with a flower, or a fruit, or [56] a toy, without wanting to have it, and very often she got it, for she could coax very prettily, and if that did not do, the tears would come into her sweet dark eyes, and her rosebud of a mouth would quiver so piteously that he somehow felt himself a cruel little wretch, and begged her to take it. As she grew older her one delight was in jewels and golden trinkets, and though King Adrastus was for ever giving her such things, she could never have enough, but hoarded them away, and began to think of how she could get more. Sometimes she would pretend that she had lost a ring or a bracelet, and fret over it for days, till she was promised another like it, and then, when the new one was made, she would say that the gold was not so fine, or the gems not so large, as the old. Then the King, who doted on his young sister, would make her amends with some other costly gift besides, so that her hoard of treasures grew from day to day. But at last she did really lose one of her jewels; it was an earring curiously wrought, and hung with a pear-shaped pearl, and there were no such earrings in all the land of Greece as this and its fellow, which a trader from across the sea had brought to Argos out of the East. Therefore the Princess Eriphyle could not be comforted with any gift for the loss of it, and great search was made in all the house, and in the King's [57] orchard and garden, but it could not be found. Amphiaraus searched with the rest, and could not bear to see the grief of the pretty princess. He sought to comfort her as best he could, and entreated her not to grieve, saying, "The earring will surely be found some day, and meanwhile have you not hundreds of other jewels? Do not vex yourself, Eriphyle, and spoil your dear eyes with weeping, or you will break my heart."

"Oh," she cried, "what a false boy this is! He would have me think he loves me, when he will not do the least little thing for my sake."

"I know not what you mean," he answered, bewildered. "What is there I would not do to please you?"

"If you loved me truly," she said, "you would never rest day or night till you brought me my earring, my lovely pearl earring that I prize so dearly, or else the match of it."

"One of those things I will do," said Amphiaraus, "and I will see your face no more till I have done it." And he went out of the chamber where she sat crying and scolding her women. But when he had once more searched high and low in vain, he said to himself that since he certainly could never find that earring, the thing he must do was to find another like it somewhere in the world. He waited till nightfall, lest one should see and hinder his going; then he [58] took a cloak and a staff and put on sandals, and stole out of the King's house, and out of the city gate from which the road led to the nearest harbour-town. For he thought that there he might find some ship bound for the lands of the East, where only in the world craftsmen made earrings like the Princess Eriphyle's. It was a summer's night, and the clear heaven shone thick with stars, like bright kind eyes looking down upon his lonely way. About a league from the city, the road was bordered on one side by a wood of olives, and the young prince turned aside to rest there till morning light. He saw among the trees what seemed the pillared porch of a house, and went towards it, to seek a lodging for the night, but coming nearer, he saw that it was a roofless shrine, empty and half in ruins. Only a low stone altar, such as men built upon the graves of the dead, was to be seen within, lichen-stained, and mantled over by a wild vine. Amphiaraus rolled his cloak together for a pillow and propped it against the altar, and laid him down to sleep. Now as he slept, he dreamed a dream; he thought that a large, bright-eyed snake came out of the altar and coiled itself round him, and that it licked his eyes and his ears with its soft, forked tongue. This terrified him so, that he awoke, and then, as it seemed to him that voices were talking close at hand, he [59] raised himself very quietly on one elbow, listening, and looking about him. It was still night, but the stars gave light enough in the roofless chamber to see two little brown owls perched side by side on the broken cornice. The low talking went on, till suddenly one of the voices—quite softly, but quite distinctly—hooted. Then the prince looked at the owls again, and saw that they were the speakers, and he listened with all his might, pretending to be asleep.

"What youth is that," said one, "and why has he come to sleep on the grave of Melampus?"

"Little wife," answered the other, "he is called Amphiaraus, and he is the grandson of Melampus, and rightful king of half this land."

"How comes that?" said the lady owl. "Is not Adrastus rightful king of all Argos, seeing that he is descended from the elder brother of Melampus?"

"It is a long story," replied her mate, "but you shall hear it if you like." And he told her the tale of the three proud princesses, and how Melampus gained two-thirds of the kingdom and gave an equal share to Bias, his brother. "So you see," he said, "that King Adrastus is no better than a usurper, although he belongs to the elder branch of that family. He has brought up this youth in ignorance of his rights, and taught him to suppose that his grandfather Melampus [60] held only the rank of a younger brother to the King from whom Adrastus himself inherits the whole land. Covetousness, my little wife, is the root of strange evils among men, and it is well seen in this greedy King and his greedier sister, Eriphyle. Like brother, like sister; because she has lost a gewgaw that you and I would not give a mouse for, she has sent this lad who loves her to the world's end to look for its like."

"How wise you are," said the lady owl. "It does a bird's heart good to listen to you. But tell me, will Amphiaraus find her jewel for the princess? It seems a pity such a handsome young prince should go wandering about the world like a beggar."

"He need not wander far if he knew where to look," said the other owl. "The princess dropped her earring when she was swinging in the orchard, and a magpie, who spied it in the grass, picked it up and flew off with it. That magpie happens to have built a nest at the top of the sycamore which you see yonder, at the end of this olive grove, and she has put the earring into it, by way of ornament. For my part, I always thing that magpies do not understand the true principles of house-building. The Beautiful is all very well, but when it comes to plastering one's walls with hard shiny things such as earrings, instead of with down, I, for one, consider it a mistake."

[61] "My dear husband," said the lady owl, "how happy it makes me to hear you discourse. I believe you are the wisest owl that ever hooted."

Upon this, her mate gave a hoot which sounded something like a pleased laugh, and both the little owls flew away. Amphiaraus sat till sunrise beside the altar, pondering on what he had heard. He understood, now, that his dream was a true vision; he had heard how Melampus became a seer, and it was plain to him that the snake out of the grave was the spirit of the dead King, which had come forth in that shape to bestow his own strange powers upon his grandson. He had heard too that Melampus, when his end was near, desired that he might not be buried among the royal tombs of Argos, but rest under the open sky and among the woods which he had loved to haunt. Here, then, they had buried him, and build an altar and an unroofed shrine, but none had brought offerings to the tomb, nor repaired the crumbling walls, for many years, through fear of Adrastus, and of his father before him, who had threatened to punish any that showed honour to the memory of Melampus. Amphiaraus scarcely believed the owl had told a true tale about the King, his kinsman, who had always treated him with kindness, and he felt sure that he had spoken very unjustly against Eriphyle. "But I will soon see," he [62] thought, "if the bird was right about the magpie and the earring." So he climbed the sycamore, and there indeed was the jewel in the magpie’s nest.

The princess was overjoyed when he brought it to her, and her pleasure was pretty to see, but he noticed rather sadly that, while she eagerly fingered the precious earring again and again to see that it had received no injury, she only asked him carelessly where he had found it, and quite forgot to thank him. For the first time Amphiaraus felt that he had a secret which she must not share; he told her he had found her jewel in a tree, where perhaps some thievish bird had carried it. "Very likely," she said, turning away, "but no matter where it was, since I have it again." And she went from him, smiling, to lay it up with her other treasures.

From that day the young prince was greatly changed; he grew silent and thoughtful, and wandered much alone among the woods and hills, with only his two hounds for company. King Adrastus supposed that he went hunting, and was wont to banter him pleasantly on his poor success, for it was seldom that he brought home any game. But Amphiaraus for the most part was not hunting; he was listening to the new language that his ears were opened to understand, and learning wisdom of beast and bird. Now, too, [63] he could talk to his dogs, and the pleasure this was to them made amends for their disappointment when their master would not let them chase a doe or hare. So passed the summer, but when winter came, with its cold and rain, he went more seldom into the woodlands, and began to be seen more often in the market-place of the city, where, under long pillared porticoes of the temples around it, the folk of Argos gathered for buying and selling, and the old men would sit and talk. Amphiaraus went much among the people, who loved the young prince for his courteous speech and comely looks; he listened with respect to the talk of the old citizens, and they, who remembered his wise grandfather, and secretly hated King Adrastus, began to say among themselves that the wisdom of the good Melampus had come down to this noble youth, so shamefully kept from his inheritance.

And little by little they cautiously dropped hints in his hearing, which he, who knew so much more than they thought, was quick to understand. and to show that he understood, till at length they saw that he knew the whole story, though they could not guess by what means he learnt it. Now, Adrastus ruled the people hardly, for he was not less greedy of gain than the little owl had said, and he oppressed the folk with more and more tolls and taxes, so that he became [64] hateful to them. Also he took bribes and presents from those who came to plead their causes before him, and gave judgments for the rich against the poor, who had nothing to give him. These things bred much discontent in Argos, and whispers went abroad that some end should be made to this wrong-doing. There came a day at last when word went through the city of yet another tax to be laid upon the people, more grievous than any before, and at that a cry arose: "We will not longer endure this folk-devouring King! To arms, friends, and let us fall upon Adrastus and his guards in the palace. Better be slain with the sword than pay his dues of our corn and wine and oil till we perish with hunger." Then the elders of the city answered the people: "Well said, yet bethink you what you will do. Was it ever heard or known that any but a king could stand up against a kin? Who shall lead you against Adrastus, and who will rule you and fight your battles in his stead?"

Then, even as they hoped, the people cried, "The grandson of Melampus shall be our leader. Amphiaraus shall be king over us, and we will cast out the usurper who holds his land." So the whole city rose up in revolt, with shouting and clashing of arms, and marched upon the palace. Adrastus was a brave warrior, but he and his guards were taken by surprise, so suddenly [65] the multitude broke in upon them, crying, "Amphiaraus shall be King! Away with the usurper!" Now while Adrastus and his men ran to the armoury to get their weapons, Amphiaraus stood still, amazed by the cry he heard, and the people thronged round him with loud shouts of, "Hail, King of Argos!" till the hall rang again. "Alas, friends," he cried to them, "what means this tumult? Can I take arms with you against Adrastus, my kinsman, my kind master since I was a child? I pray you, if you love me, put up your swords, and hear me, while I speak to the King." Then, as the inner doors were flung open and Adrastus was seen standing armed at the head of his men, the young prince turned to him and said, "I had no part in this, O King, nor knew what the folk purposed, but now, lest worse come of it, suffer me to speak their request and mine."

"Say on," said Adrastus. "The people would make me King," said Amphiaraus, "because the burden of tolls and taxes is more than they can bear, and because they know that I have the right to half the land you hold. Now it is best that there should be but one King in Argos, and you, my kinsman, must be that King, for I will never repay your kindness by disloyalty. I seek not to be King of half Argos, as were my father and my grandfather; I ask only to possess their share of the land, and to hold it under you as my liege [66] lord. But for the people I ask that they may have equal justice done to rich and poor, as it was done by our fathers, and pay no greater taxes than our fathers required of them. Consider well, Adrastus, what you will do, for these men are many and desperate, and who knows what shall be the end if once swords are drawn?"

The King was silent for a space, for he doubted what were best to do; then he said: "I need time to answer such a request as this, and the day is far spent. Let the folk abide here, if they will, all night, to make sure I shall not bar the palace doors against them, and in the morning I will answer them and you." So the people remained in the King's hall and in the courtyard, and his servants brought them food and wine at nightfall, and they kept watch by companies all night. But Adrastus and his guards withdrew to the inner chambers of the palace, and there he gathered all his treasure together, and loaded his men therewith, and bade Eriphyle put all her jewels in bundles for her handmaids to carry, and led her, with all their train, through a secret passage from his underground treasure chamber to the fields beyond the palace garden. They could not take horses from the stables, for they were near the courtyard, and the noise of hoofs and wheels would have betrayed them, but stole away on foot through the darkness till they came to a [67] farm of the King's, where some of his mules were kept, and these were harnessed to country carts for the princess and her women. Thence with all speed Adrastus and his company passed over the border of Argos and came as fugitives to the friendly city of Sicyon.

When it was found in the morning that the King had fled, some were for pursuing him, but the old me said: "Let him alone, he has done wisely. For he knew he had made such enemies of the people that he could never dwell safely in Argos, so long as they saw Amphiaraus among them, whom all desire for their king. The gods have blessed yesterday's work with a good ending." And since Adrastus has chosen flight rather than do the justice asked of him, Amphiaraus was willing to rule in his stead over the people, and he ruled them wisely and well. Yet his heart was full of sadness at the thought of Eriphyle, driven from the home where now he lived in lonely state, to dwell among strangers; and when he heard that her brother had made his abode in Sicyon he sent messengers again and again with letters, praying to reconciled to his kinsman and offering to bring him back as King on the former conditions. Adrastus for a long while returned no answer; he had gathered a power in Sicyon with the help of his treasure, and was become master of the city, so that he meant ere [68] long to come against Argos with an army and win back his throne by force. When two years were gone by, Amphiaraus could no longer endure his longing to see Eriphyle again; he put on the disguise of a merchant, and went secretly to Sicyon with one faithful servant, and sought admission to the princess, saying that he had jewels to sell. Eriphyle received him in the chamber where she sat spinning with her maidens, and when she asked him the price of the jewels he showed her, "They are yours without a price, fair princess," he said, "if I may speak with you alone." At that, she sent the maidens out of the chamber, and forthwith he made himself known to her, and told her that he could have no joy of his kingdom because of his loneliness without her. Now the princess was weary of dwelling in a strange city, and she thought, "If I were wedded to Amphiaraus, for love of me he would do my brother’s will in all things. Why should not Adrastus promise all he asks, and leave the rest to me?" So she smiled sweetly upon him, and with subtle words made him believe that Adrastus was even then about to sent a letter to him, consenting to return. And after private speech with her brother, she brought him to Amphiaraus, and they embraced as friends. Adrastus of his own accord declared that he would come back to Argos and do all that was required of him: "You," he said, "shall [69] possess your own land, and dwell with me in all honour, as second in the kingdom. Only, that we may live together like brothers, I desire to give you my sister for wife, making this compact with you, that should we ever differ on any matter, she shall decide between us."

Now Amphiaraus was wise with the wisdom of the beasts and birds, who know things hidden from men, and can read the signs of what shall be before it comes; but he had no skill in the crafty ways of man. He believed that Adrastus and his sister loved him as truly as he loved them, and he received the hand of the princess with the deepest joy. Yet after their wedding in Sicyon, as they all journeyed homewards together, he saw many sights that boded misfortune, and chilled his heart with fear of evil to come. They had not gone far when a hare ran across the road before them; presently they saw a single magpie by the wayside, and every bird that flew over their heads was flying widdershins. And as they came near the gates of Argos, a raven rose on flapping wings from a thunder-blasted tree, and uttered one harsh croak. Amphiaraus alone could hear the word in that croak, and the word was "Death." So it was with a heavy heart that he came home again, although he brought with him the bride he had long desired, and the kinsman he had striven to restore to his throne. 70

II

[70] YEARS came and went, and still all was well with the princes and the folk of Argos. Adrastus soon learnt that Amphiaraus was a seer, and that whatever he foretold most surely came to pass, and he took his counsel in all things, so that the people marvelled because the King now ruled them mildly and justly. And the land had peaces, for no enemy cold plot anything against Adrastus that the birds did not bring warning of to Amphiaraus. Meanwhile children were born to Eriphyle and to the wife whom the King had taken in Sicyon. Now when the daughters of the King were maidens grown, he was troubled by a strange dream concerning them, and told it to Amphiaraus. "I dreamed," he said, "that a lion and a bear came to Argos, and were married to my daughters. What means this?"

"To-morrow, at this time," answered the seer, "go out of the north gate of the city, and you will see that lion and that bear. Bring them to your palace, and marry them to your daughters, for the gods will have it so."

Adrastus went out of the city gate on the morrow, and saw two young men coming towards him richly armed, after the fashion of king's sons [71] and each had a painted shield. Now the shield of one was emblazoned with the figure of a lion, and that of the other with the figure of a bear. The King saluted them, and asked them who they were and whence they came. "I am called Tydeus," answered he with the lion-shield; "I have fled from the house of my father, who is king in the far north country, because I have slain a kinsman by mischance." Then he whose device was the bear, said: "Polyneices is my name, and I come from the city of Thebes. The curse of blood is come upon the king my father, and he is an outcast from the land. Now my brother and I agreed together to rule in Thebes by turns, each for a year; but when the first year was over, my brother would not give up the kingdom, and he has driven me forth, a banished man." So Adrastus knew that these princes were sent to him by the gods, to become his sons-in-law, according to his dream, and he bade them welcome and lodged them in the palace, and having persuaded them to abide in Argos, he gave them his daughters in marriage.

But the king's son of Thebes could not rest for the hatred he had to his brother, and he thought day and night upon revenge. Ere long he began to work upon Adrastus with promises and entreaties to gather a host together and make war on Thebes, telling him what great and goodly [72] spoils should be his share when the city was taken. The King was easily moved by the hope of gain to undertake such a war; he called his kinsmen and his captains together, and declared his mind to them. Now the rest were willing enough to follow him forth to battle, but they waited to hear what counsel Amphiaraus would give. Then slowly uprose the seer, and spoke a warning in solemn tones: "Fight not in this young man's quarrel, Adrastus, lest you bring on us and on our children the curse that rests upon his house. For three generations the wrath of the gods has not ceased from the royal race of Thebes, nor will it pass from them till Polyneices perish by the sword, ay, and his brother also. Hear now the tale of how it came. Laius the king, for a wickedness that he did in secret, was hated of the Heavenly Ones, and they laid this doom on him, that his own son should slay him, and pronounced it by the mouth of the priestess in the holy place of Delphi. Therefore, Laius, when his first child was born, had him cast out upon a wild and barren mountain, there to die or to be devoured by beasts of prey. But the herdsman of a neighbour king found the babe, and brought him to their lord's wife, who had no children, and she reared him as her son. It fell on a day, when he was grown a man, that he drove in a chariot over a saddle of the hills, and [73] there met him another chariot and a troop of slaves running on foot. Now the two chariots could not pass in the narrow road, and the servants of the man in the chariot cried roughly to the son of Laius to make way, and seized his horses' bridles to turn them off the road on to the hillside, and he, in anger, urged his horses forward till he was close to the other charioteer, who leaned forward and struck him in the face with his whip. At that the son of Laius drew his sword, and stabbed that stranger to the heart, and he fell down dead in the chariot. The youth had but one servant with him, and the slaves were many; but they scattered in terror when they saw their lord was slain, and he dragged the dead man's chariot aside and went his way, not knowing the thing that he had done. For that man was Laius the king. After this the land of Thebes was ravaged by a strange and cruel monster, who preyed on youths and maidens, till the dead king's kinsmen let proclaim everywhere that whoever should slay the monster should take the kingdom for his reward. Many bards have sung, and often have we heard in Argos, how a stranger youth made an end of that fell creature which men called the Sphinx, and became king in Thebes; that tale were too long to tell.

"But the blood he had shed in wrath was avenged at last upon that stranger youth, for he was the [74] son of Laius, and after many years a chance revealed to him the name of his true father, and who it was he slew on the mountain road. Then it was that in agony of soul he made known the truth to his sons, to this Polyneices and his brother, and bade them take the kingdom that he might go on pilgrimage to holy places, seeking to wash away his guilt. Ah, hard-hearted prince, little pity did you or your brother show to your aged father in his evil hour. You it was, his own children, who drove him from the land, a feeble, blind old man, to beg his bread among strangers, and on you, when you thrust him forth, did he call down a father's curse. Beware, I say, Adrastus, how you draw the sword for Polyneices. Too surely, when he marches against Thebes, will he march to the doom prepared." When Amphiaraus had thus spoken, he went out from among them. Polyneices trembled at the words of the seer, for they brought to his mind the prayer his father uttered at his going forth from the gate of Thebes: "O Sun, O Earth, behold the wrongs I suffer from these my children. Hear, Zeus on high, hear, gods of the under-world, the prayer of Oedipus the outcast, who once was Oedipus the King. As these sons of mine have thrust me out unpitied in mine age, so let them fall unpitied in their youth: as they have hated me for a crime that I did unwittingly, so may they [75] hate each other, till their hate leads them to a crime that they shall do with open eyes."

Yet his heart was so bent upon revenge, that no warning could turn him from his purpose; he was ready to brave destruction, if only he might destroy Eteocles his brother before it overwhelmed him. Therefore he pleaded earnestly with Adrastus, and his pleading prevailed against the warning of Amphiaraus, for the King said, "Be the rest as it may, Polyneices has had much wrong from his brother, and I am minded to help him to his right." Then Tydeus, his other son-in-law, who was a mighty warrior, said, "I, too, am fain to do battle for him, and there are many princes and chiefs, our neighbours, who will gladly march with us to Thebes, to win themselves renown of valour. But some means must be found to make Amphiaraus one of us, for his name is great in all the land both as a warrior and a prophet, and neither princes nor people will fight with good hope, unless he go with our host."

"Leave that to me," said Adrastus, "for I know a way to turn him to what I will." And he broke up their council, and sent word to Eriphyle that he desired speech with her.

Now Eriphyle had lived so long with Amphiaraus that his tender goodness had brought love out of that selfish heart of hers, as the gentle [76] rain brings flowers out a parched garden-soil. So when she came to her brother, and he told her that the time was come for her to decide a matter between him and her husband, according to the marriage-compact, she said to him: "You are very dear to me, my brother, but my lord and husband is dearer still. What seems good to him I also will uphold, though I am loth to gainsay you." And she went back to her house without more words spoken, and told Amphiaraus what had passed. The seer pressed her hand in silence, and she said, "Do you know, my lord, what this matter is, that Adrastus would have had me take his part in, and so have compelled your consent?"

Then he told the King's desire to war with Thebes, and said with a sigh, "I should have known that Adrastus would not heed my warning when there is the hope of golden spoils to be won, but I little thought he would seek this way to force me to fight in his host. That is what he meant you to do, my wife, to bid me march with him to Thebes, and by my marriage oath I am bound to yield to his will, whenever you shall so decide. Now I will tell you a thing that I told not to Adrastus, for little would it have hindered his going. I, if I go to Thebes, shall return no more, but meet my doom there."

Ill-pleased was King Adrastus that his sister [77] would not so much as hear the thing he desired her help in against Amphiaraus, and he railed upon her to Polyneices, saying, "Who shall read a woman? This sister of mine that once loved nothing but gold and jewels, as well becomes a king's daughter, prates to me now of love for the man who she took for her lord only that she might come back to Argos and make him a tool in my hands. For Amphiaraus and I took an oath together to abide by her judgement when we came to variance, and now if she would say the word, he must come with us to Thebes, whether he will or no."

"Do you tell me that?" said Polyneices; "then let me deal with your sister." Now he said to himself that as he had won the brother with a bribe of wealth, so he would win the sister, now he knew that she loved jewels. For he had brought with him to Argos a rarer treasure than could be found in the caskets of all the queens on earth. It was a necklace of strange device and cunning workmanship; from a narrow band of beaten gold, two rows of pendants hung by chains of pearls, and in the upper row each pendant was a golden dove, with outspread wings and ruby eyes, but in the lower, each pendant was a golden hand, clasping an apple, and every apple was a topaz or an emerald. This, long ago, was a marriage gift of the [78] goddess Aphrodite to her fair child Harmonia, whom the gods gave for bride to the first King of Thebes, and all the queens of his house had worn it, till the mother of Polyneices bestowed it on her favourite son. With this, he thought, he could tempt Eriphyle to betray her husband, however much she loved him. And he was right; the princess at first refused to listen, when his wife, her kinswoman, brought her his message and showed her the wondrous necklace, but he sent again and again, till at last desire of the precious thing so consumed Eriphyle, that she took it, with promise to give her voice for war with Thebes.

Then Polyneices hastened to the King, and once more the princes of the land were summoned to council. Adrastus said that he was resolved to march at once upon the city, and when Amphiaraus told him sadly, "This once, I cannot go with you to battle," he answered, "That shall Eriphyle decide, even as you and I made compact long ago. Let her be called, and give judgement between us."

Pale as death, with downcast eyes, the traitress came into the hall; her brother, in few words, told her why she was sent for, and asked, "How say you, my sister? Shall Amphiaraus go with me to Thebes, or shall he forebear?" And with eyes still fixed upon the ground, she said in a [79] low voice, "He shall go with you." Then she turned quickly, and went out of that assemblage with the handmaids who followed her.

"You have heard, Amphiaraus," said the King with a smile of triumph, "and you know now that to Thebes you must go."

"I have heard my doom," said the seer, "and not mine only. For I say to you, princes of Argos, that of seven champions who will lead our host against yonder city, not one shall return alive, save one, and he in flight from a lost battle." So saying, he went also to his house.

Before many days, a gallant army set forth at break of day from the gates of Argos, in seven companies, headed by as many princes in panoply of war. Each chief, but one, had some device blazoned on his shield which he had chosen to express his purpose and his hopes in going forth. First came the brave Tydeus, whose shield, the colour of the midnight sky, was thick sown with silver stars, with a full orbed moon in the midst, for he said, "As many stars as shine around this moon, so many souls will I send to throng the palace of Death's Queen, who is the moon of the Nether World." Next came Capaneus, of that former royal house of Argos, whose last king fell by the wrath of Hera; his emblem was a naked man with a blazing torch, and over him written, 'I WILL FIRE THE CITY.' [80] The third and the fourth leaders were warlike princes, neighbours to Adrastus, who had for their devices, the one that earth-born giant Typhon, half-man, half-snake, with flames issuing from his mouth; the other, in bitter mockery of Thebes, her ancient plague, the monstrous Sphinx, with the body of a youth in its claws. The shield of Polyneices bore the figure of a man in golden armour, led by a woman of noble and modest aspect, above whose head was written her name, 'Justice ' while from her mouth came the words, 'This man will I lead home.' Then came King Adrastus, having for emblem a warrior fully armed, mounting a ladder against a city-wall, with this inscription, 'SmallCaps("Not Ares, the war-god, shall turn me back"?>.' Last of all came Amphiaraus, and he only had nothing painted on his shield. He heeded not the farewells and blessings of the crowd about the city gate, but gazed before him as though in a trance, until, as he passed through the archway, he turned and looked back at the white porch of his home. There, between his two young sons, Eriphyle was standing, and their eyes met in one long, last look. Never a word had they spoken to one another since she had said the word that sent him forth to his fate, and she had shunned the sight of his calm, sad face. She could not read the meaning of the glance he now turned [81] upon her, but it seemed to pierce her very hear; almost she rushed forward to call him back, but in a moment he had passed on at the head of his men. "It is too late," she said aloud, and went sobbing to her chamber. But before night she had clasped on the necklace; she need not hide it now, and that was something.

Adrastus and his host marched northwards through the land, and when they came tot he border, they halted to offer sacrifice and prayer to Zeus, that he might send them a sign of good fortune ere they set foot on a foreign ground. Amphiaraus, whose part it was as seer to interpret the signs given by the sacrifice, watched in silence while they heaped dry wood upon a wayside altar, and laid the burnt offering of a ram thereon, and kindled the pile; well he knew that the sign given would be one plain enough for all to read without help of his. The thin flames, pale in the sunlight, had scarcely flickered up from the altar, when from the cloudless summer sky a shower of hail came hissing down upon the sacrifice, and quenched it in an instant. Thunder, in one sharp peal, followed the hail, which fell only on the altar. While all stood dismayed, Adrastus boldly cried, "Courage, my comrades. What though this portent tells us Zeus will not accept our offering, it may be that he foretells a greater. We have offered a ram on this poor [82] altar, but the god perhaps signifies that he waits the sacrifice of a hundred oxen which I have vowed him from the spoil of Thebes." Thus he cheered the spirits of his army, but the princes cried, "Let the seer interpret for us. Tell us, Amphiaraus, what bodes this sign—evil or good?"

"Nay," answered the seer, "hearken rather to Adrastus, for the time is gone by when word of mine could avail you. Yet, if he trusts in vows, let him know this, to obey is better than sacrifice."

That night, the host encamped among the hills, and next noontide they rested in a deep and grassy vale, shut in by hanging woods. The streams of the valley were now dwindled or dried up by the heat of summer, and it was needful to seek elsewhere for water. The Seven Champions went a little further through the solitary vale, and found a woman seated on a flowery knoll, with a child playing at her feet, and they asked her if there were any springs in that place where their host might drink, and water the horses.

"I will show you," she said, "where there is such a spring; it is in yonder wood, across the valley."

Then they called to them their slaves from the camp, who came bearing great jars slung on poles, and followed the woman, but the child was left at play among the flowers of the meadow. Now [83] when they returned from the spring, he was not where she had left him, nor did he answer her calling, and she began to weep, saying, "He is the King's only son, whom I, his nurse, brought hither to play; if evil has befallen him, I am undone."

"He cannot be far away," said the Seven Champions, and they bade their men search the valley.

But Amphiaraus saw the head and back of a serpent glancing through the meadow grass at a distance, and said, "He is yonder." They ran where he pointed, and the woman with a loud cry threw herself upon the body of the child, who lay there dead, slain by that serpent's bite. Fear and trembling came upon the Seven, for all knew that the sight of Death upon the road foretells utter disaster to the traveller, and of all evil signs this is the worst. Nevertheless, the hearts of the rest were hardened, by the will of the gods, that they might fulfil their doom, and the seer spoke no word to turn them from their onward march, knowing it was now too late. He bade the weeping nurse be comforted, for no harm should come to her, and asked her the name of that place. "It is called the vale of Nemea," she said, "and the folk say Heracles, that great hero, did his first mighty deed here, ridding these woods of a man-slaying lion. They say he strangled the [84] monster with his bare hands, and I may well believe it; the men of to-day are but weaklings to him and his godlike generation, whom I saw in my youth."

Now this woman was old, and meanly clad, yet she bore herself nobly, and her speech was not the speech of a slave. Adrastus asked her name, and whether she were any kin to her master, the king of that country. "I am Hypsipyle," she answered, "who once was queen of an island far away. An evil fate cast me from my throne, and my foes sold me into bondage. And now, when I take the tidings to my master that his child is dead, he will surely put me to death because I kept not guard over my nursling."

But the Seven Champions sent a herald with those tidings to the King, her master, and he came to them with his Queen, and all their household, making great lamentation. The Seven gave him sorrowful greeting, and when they had made themselves known to him, they laid all blame to themselves for the mischance that had befallen, and took his promise to hold the nurse guiltless. Then they buried the child in that same meadow, and raised a lofty mound over the grave, and set a pillar of stone upon the mound, whereon his name should be engraven, to keep him in remembrance. All the host from Argos mourned for him with his own people, for [85] three days and three nights, and the King, his father, made a great funeral feast in the vale of Nemea. On the third day, the Seven Champions departed, but first Amphiaraus made solemn offerings at the grave, pouring milk mingled with honey upon it, as the custom was, and he spoke these words to the father: "I bid you engrave a new name upon this memorial stone, and not the name which your child bore in his life. Henceforth his name is Archemorus, that is, Doom's Firstling, for he was made the beginning of calamity to us in this our ill-starred journey. Grieve not, O King, for his early death, since without having known toil or pain, he has won glory such as many strive for through long and weary lives. For a thousand years to come, men shall hold solemn feasts beside this grave, and call his death to remembrance; the flower of youth from all the cities of Greece shall gather to those festivals, and contend in feats of strength, and in honour to his memory the victors shall be crowned with garlands of the wild parsley which grows on the spot where he died."

With this prophecy the seer went his way.

News of the coming of the Seven Champions flew before them, and there was tumult and fear in the city of Thebes. Eteocles, the King, made ready to defend the walls against them, and he alone felt no fear; he was of sterner mood than [86] his brother Polyneices, and the thought of their father's curse troubled him not at all. He appointed six doughty chieftains to guard six gates of the city, for his scouts brought word that each leader of the enemy's host was encamped before one of the seven gates of Thebes, and having asked where Polyneices was posted, he said, "That gate I will defend myself. My traitor-brother, who dares to threaten his mother-city with fire and sword, must fall by no hand but mine." These dreadful words were spoken in the hearing of his household, and of the wives and mothers of the citizens, who had flocked for safety to the fortified rock whereon the palace stood, and all who heard them trembled. But none dared say their mind tot he King, except one grey-haired dame, who had known him from a child. "The gods forbid," she cried, wringing her withered hands, "that ever the sons of one mother should meet in deadly fray. Nay, my King, do not this wickedness: bring not the deep pollution of a brother's blood upon you. Command one of your captains to guard the seventh gate, and fight yourself against some other champion, not with Polyneices, lest the gods of our city withhold their aid from you in anger."

Then others of the women entreated him also not to fight at the seventh gate, falling at his feet with loud laments and clasping his knees in [87] supplication. But Eteocles thrust them away in a rage, bidding them hold their peace for a pack of brawling fools.

"As for the gods," he said, "I care not how I may offend them, seeing that they have long hated all my race with a great hatred." And he went forth to look to the manning of the walls, and took his post at the seventh gate.

The host of the Seven Champions was now mustered for the onset; their trumpets rang out the signal, and above the clash of armour and clatter of chariot-wheels were heard the war-cries of the Seven as they rushed forward to the assault, and the answering shouts of the men of Thebes. As the bold Tydeus mounted his chariot, he saw Amphiaraus come forth from his tent and stand beside his own ready car, stroking the necks of the horses, and talking to them. "Ah, laggard!" he called to him, "so our seer is too wise to face the doom he foretold us. Now shame on you Amphiaraus, for even if your prophet's eyes see Death himself waiting at yonder gate, you play a coward's part in loitering here."

The seer lifted up his eyes and looked towards the gate on which his men were already advancing.

"I do indeed see what none else may see, yonder," he answered, "but it is not Death; [88] it is a warrior-form in the likeness of myself, as I was in youth, and his shield bears the speckled snake, that I took for badge in memory of Melampus. Yet it is not the wraith of myself, for I see him enter that gate a victor, from which I must be beaten back this very day. It is the vision of my son, the boy Alcmaeon, as he will one day be seen; the gods have granted me to know, in this last hour, that our children, Tydeus, shall conquer were their fathers fell. But now farewell, brave prince, for neither you nor I shall return to pleasant Argos; would with all my heart that I might die the death of a warrior with my noble comrades, but another doom is mine."

Then, with rapt gaze still bent upon the city gate, Amphiaraus stepped into his chariot and gathered up the reins, and at the bidding of his loved voice the horses dashed full gallop into the thick of the battle.

All day, like the thunder of surf against the cliffs, the din of that great fight swelled and sank round the walls of Thebes; all day a pall of coppery haze hung low over the city in the hot June air, laden with the sandy dust that rose in clouds from the trampled earth. So low it hung that the men upon the wall saw as through veils of fog the sudden glint of weapons, and white grim faces of the foes, come surging up [89] from below when now and again some party of the invaders had planted their scaling-ladders against the ramparts in spite of the showers of darts and stones hurled down upon them. Now of scores who scaled the ladders, all were beaten back or cast down headlong before they could set foot upon the wall, except Capaneus, he of the Seven who had written on his shield the boast that he would fire the city. But he, carrying a blazing torch in his left hand, thrust it in the face of the nearest foes as he leaped among them, so that they fell back, and he sprang past them, and gained the roof of a temple that was built against the wall's inner side. "Zeus himself," he shouted, "shall not stop me now." The men of Thebes durst not leave the battlement to follow him, for his comrades came crowding up the ladder, and Capaneus in another instant would have fired the wooden gable of the temple, when, with one blinding flash of jagged flame, a thunderbolt out of heaven struck him and his torch to a heap of ashes. Such was the end of a man who had eve made a boast of defying the power of the gods.

Now, where all fought fearlessly and well, none did more valiantly than King Adrastus, and the foemen went down like corn before the reaper as he hewed his way among them to the gate. But as the day wore one, his own [90] ranks were thinned ever faster by the missiles from the walls, and evil reports came by one messenger after another of the fighting at the other gates. Capaneus, they said, was charred to ashes by a thunderbolt, a manifest judgement of Zeus upon his impious vaunt, and Tydeus was breathing his last, wounded to death by the Theban chieftain he had slain in single combat. Then came word that others of the Seven were fallen, and when the light of sunset began to dye those reddened walls with a deeper crimson, a cry went through the host, from gate to gate: "O men of Argos, our cause is lost; the princes of Thebes have met, and Polyneices is hewn down by his brother's sword." At that cry, the besieged as one man burst out by all the gates with shouts of victory, and drove the now wavering mass of the invaders in rout before them. Adrastus knew that he only was left alive of the Seven, unless Amphiaraus, of whom no word had reached him, were among the flying; the day was lost indeed, and he turned rein and fled for his life. The pursuers pressed hard upon him, and one of his horses began to slacken speed at last for weariness and lack of provender; but the other, a bay stallion of Corinthian breed that Amphiaraus had given him, held on gallantly, straining at the yoke. "Save me now, Arion," Adrastus called to him; "save [91] me for his sake who reared you and gave you to me," and quick as thought he lighted down from the chariot, cut Arion's trace, and sprang upon his back. The good horse neighed as if to show he understood, then went forward like the wind; over hill and dale he sped untiring, till he brought his rider safe to Argos.

The King was the first to bring those evil tidings to the city, and few there were who came behind him of all the great array that went forth to Thebes. Amphiaraus was not among the fugitives, nor could any of them give news as to his fate in the battle. The city was filled with the lamentations of the old men, the women and children, mourning for sons, husbands and fathers, for every household was made desolate, from the least to the greatest. Then the elders of the folk, clad in white robes (for white was the hue of mourning at Argos), came to the King and besought him to send a herald to Thebes, praying leave to bring home the bones of the men who had fallen, that at least they might rest in the sepulchres of their fathers. This Adrastus did, and he himself, with the remnant of his fighting men, followed the herald to the border of the Theban land, there to wait till leave were granted. The herald returned with word that there was a new king in Thebes. "Eteocles," he said, "even as [92] he clove the helm of his brother, was stabbed by him a hand's-deep in the breast, and they fell down dead together. Creon, their mother's brother, now rules the city, and he grants you the truce you desire, but bids you come unarmed." So Adrastus and his train came weaponless, in the white garb of mourning, beneath the walls, and they built a great pyre before each gate, and laid their dead thereon for the burning. For so was the custom of those days, to burn the bodies of those slain in war abroad, and gather their ashes into urns, which were laid in tombs in their own land. Now the body of Amphiaraus was not found among the slain, and as Adrastus stood watching the burning pyres, he lifted up his voice and wept, saying, "Would that even in death I might look on his face again, the jewel of all my host, the best of warriors and the best of seers."

Scarcely had he said this, when he saw a youth running towards him from a grove of poplars nigh at hand, and he knew him for the shield-bearer of Amphiaraus. "How comes it, young man," said Adrastus, "that you are here, neither slain nor captive, and where is your lord?"

"King," said the youth, making obeisance, "these three days I have hidden in the woods, fearing the Theban horsemen who have been hunting our people that escaped. I was in the [93] chariot with my lord, the seer, while he fought, and he fought like a lion until that terror from the gods fell upon the host, when they heard that Polyneices was killed. Then, when all were flying, the seer said, "The hour is come," and he turned his horses from the gate, yet he followed not the rest who fled toward Argos, but made for the woods eastward. The captain of that gate saw him, and came after us, driving furiously, and crying, "Turn, coward, and fight with me," but the seer answered never a word, nor looked back; I feared when I looked at him, for his face was set like a statue's, and his eyes seemed following some unseen thing along the road. Now we came to an open glade among the trees, and suddenly he pulled the horses backwards, and brought the chariot to a standstill, and said to me, "Light down quickly, my son, for here is my journey's end." And as I did so, wondering, he cried, "Stand back from the chariot; stand back from this place, I charge you, as you love your life. Commend me to Adrastus, and farewell." In that instant I felt the ground rock under my feet, and I leaped back, and ran to the edge of the wood. I saw the chariot that pursued us sway from side to side, and the horses stop in mid-career, trembling and plunging, and the brandished spear drop from the Theban captain's hand, and then —oh, what a sight was that for mortal eyes—the [94] heaving earth yawned asunder beneath the chariot of Amphiaraus, and he and his horses went down alive into the pit. Before we that saw it could draw breath to cry out, the chasm closed over their heads. Woe is me for my kind lord, and woe will there be in Argos for the shepherd of the folk that is taken away by so dread a doom."

The King and all his company heard this tale in awestruck silence, but presently they fell to weeping afresh at the thought that they could not bring back to Argos even the poor relics of that wise and mighty prince, to rest in honour among his own people. The pyres of the dead burned all night, and at dawn they quenched the embers with wine, and gathered the ashes into the urns of painted clay, and made ready to depart. Then came to them out of the city a venerable old man, wearing a priest's chaplet of white wool, twined with leaves, on his long grey hair, and led by a young boy, for he was blind. He walked slowly to where the King was standing, and spoke thus, leaning on his staff: "My name, O King Adrastus, is Teiresias, priest of Apollo's temple in this place, to whom the gods have given the power of a seer and a diviner of dreams, even as they gave it to Melampus and his house. I am come to bid you be comforted concerning Amphiaraus, for the doom that overtook him was [95] sent of Zeus, who would not suffer so good a man to be dishonoured by falling in the rout of a vanquished host. He has perished, as the Fates ordained all save one of the Seven Champions should perish, but he was spared the stroke of a conqueror's spear. Moreover, his spirit rests in peace in the abode of just and holy men departed, where the beloved of the gods are granted a tearless life for evermore. There, among the lilies and asphodel of dewy meadows, he walks beside the still waters, in the light and fragrance of an eternal spring. And I am given to know that as in life he was the wise counsellor of his people, so from that other world he will yet bless them with his guidance, and not them only, but folk of many lands who seek it in their need. For in days to come men will raise a temple over that spot where the earth engulfed him, and to those who sleep within its walls the dead seer will show in dreams of the night the things t hat they pray to have revealed."

Then Teiresias returned into the city of Thebes, but Adrastus went home to Argos with the relics of the slain, pondering deeply the words that he had heard, and he lived to know that they were truly spoken.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  | Previous: The Favourite of the Gods  |  Next: Peleus and the Sea-King's Daughter
Copyright (c) 2000-2017 Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.