This is a chapter of Evergreen Stories by W. M. L. Hutchinson. It includes the following stories: King Midas and His Strange Adventures — Alcestis, the Noble Wife — The Real Helen — Cupid and Psyche — The Vision of Er
Alcestis, the Noble Wife has the following chapters: 1. Admetus and Alcestis | 2. Admetus’s Godly Servant | 3. Alcestis’s Last Words | 4. Admetus and Alcestis Bid Each Other Farewell | 5. Heracles, an Unexpected Guest | 6. Alcestis’s Obsequies | 7. Heracles’s Unexpected Mission | 8. Admetus’s Mourning | 9. Heracles Saves Alcestis
“Where am I?” said the faint voice from the couch.
“My dearest,” answered Admetus, “you are with me, in our own courtyard. You asked to be brought into the open air to see the sky above you and feel the sunlight. And I daresay it will do you good… Beloved, are you easier now?”
“Yes,” murmured Alcestis; “to look once more on the blessed sunlight before I go down to endless darkness. Farewell, farewell, oh, light that lightenest every man, oh, sun that these eyes must nevermore behold rising or setting… Ah, dost fail me so quickly…? Darkness already. What is this? How came I here, to this dim lake shore…? Ah, look… the boat yonder… Charon rows it, the ferryman of the dead! It touches land… Hark, he calls, ‘Make haste, why dost thou linger?'”
“Hush, dearest, hush,” implored Admetus and, as she suddenly struggled to rise, he threw his arms around her and sought to lay her down again on the pillows. He felt her writhe and shudder in his grasp; her eyes, wild with terror, were fixed on his without sign of recognition.
“He holds me,” she gasped out; “he is dragging me away, the dark, winged shape. Oh, turn that black stare from me… Oh, let me go, let me go!”
“Lie still, lie still, my own,” said Admetus, half-sobbing. “It is I, it is your husband, who holds you. Do you not know me? Oh, gods, was ever man in such a plight as I am this day! Alcestis, speak to me, I implore you. Speak at least to the children… They are here… You are frightening them. Dearest, for their sakes and mine, do not give way… you must not, shall not, leave us.”
The two children were there, as he had said, clinging bewildered and affrighted to their nurses, who, with others of the women servants, stood weeping hard by. He beckoned to the little ones, and they came, reluctant and awestruck, to the side of the couch where their mother lay… looking so strange and talking in a voice they did not know.
Alcestis gave one convulsive movement and fell back with closed eyes, exhausted. The children set up a whimper. And at that, she opened her eyes and began to speak in a faint but composed voice.
“Admetus,” she said, “you see how it is with me… I am dying… and I have something to ask of you. Promise me one thing, in exchange for my life… but no, I will not bargain, for freely do I give it; and did I not, what price could purchase it? Promise, then, for the sake of our children. You love them as much as I do, I know. Admetus, let their home be still home to them when I am gone; do not take another wife to rule this house and hate them for being mine… For I know what stepmothers are. Our son she could not hurt much, for a boy grows up under his father’s eye. But, oh, my little daughter, she would ill treat you for your dead mother’s sake… blight your maiden fame with some slander, that never the happy, splendid bridals may be yours that I once hoped to bless in the coming years. Yes, darling, I have dreamed of seeing your marriage day and holding your first child in my arms. But that was not to be, for I must die… die now… even now.”
Her voice failed; she tried to stretch out her arms to the little girl, but they dropped helpless; her eyes turned beseechingly to Admetus.
“It shall be as you wish,” he assured her, eagerly. “Have no fears on that score. In death as in life, you alone shall men name as wife to Admetus; the loveliest and most high-born maiden in all broad Thessaly shall never rob you of that title. No, no! I will live and die your widower; my mourning shall not be put off at the year’s end, either; I will wear it all my life. Ay, the world shall see how faithful I am to your dear memory. ‘How he loved her!’ they shall say; ‘never husband so mourned a wife since Orpheus lost his Eurydice.’… Ah, if only I had the lute and voice of Orpheus, I too would go down alive into the Underworld. Fierce Charon should not stop me, nor the hellhound Cerberus! I would fight my way through a thousand terrors to bring you back, my queen!”
And, carried away by his own eloquence, Admetus struck a defiant attitude, with hand on sword hilt. For the moment, he sincerely believed that he could have done this thing. A murmur of admiration from the elders, listening in the background, greeted his last words. But the dying woman either did not hear or did not heed them.
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“The children,” she said faintly, “bring them closer… I cannot see… Lay their hands in mine… Admetus, I give them to you. You must be mother as well as father to them now. Take them… I am going.”
“No, no!” he burst out, frantically. “You shall not, you cannot forsake them, and me! My wife, you cannot be so cruel! Think, only think, what is to become of me without you.”
Alcestis turned her failing eyes on him, and with a smile half mocking and half tender — “Time will bring you comfort,” she whispered; “the dead are… nothing… in a little while… Farewell, my own dear little ones. Farewell, my husband.” Her eyes closed; she gave one deep sigh and lay still. In vain Admetus cried out to her to speak to him only once more… only one word… at least, to look at the children… Suddenly her little son, who had stood by grave and quiet, burst into loud, terrified weeping.
“Oh, Father,” he sobbed, “I think Mother’s dead! She won’t look at me — I stroked her hand, and she didn’t stroke mine back! Oh, do look at me, mother, do speak — it’s me, it’s your own little birdie calling you — Oh, please, please, mother…”
But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And then Admetus understood the truth.