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 — Circe, the Island Witch — Bellerophon, the Rider of Pegasus — How Theseus Slew the Minotaur — Odysseus in the Land of Shadows — Heracles and the Poisoned Robe | The Story of Pheidippides — The Story of Solon, Croesus, and Cyrus
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
One day in springtime, some five years after the marriage of Admetus, a stranger youth came to his palace and desired to speak with the king, who received him courteously, after his wont, and asked him his name and errand.
“My name is nothing to the purpose, oh, king,” answered the stranger; “I am a poor, homeless lad with my bread to earn, and I come to beg of you to make me one of your hired servants, for I hear everywhere that you are the best of masters. If you will take me into your house, I will become your bondman for a year and serve you faithfully.”
“But what work can you do, my good lad?” said Admetus, “for, to be plain with you, you do not look like a servant.” For he saw that though the stranger was poorly clad, his hands were white as any lady’s, and he wore his fair hair in long, curled tresses, not cropped like a menial’s.
“To be plain with you,” said the other, “I have been banished from my own country, having had the misfortune to kill a slave of my father’s.”
“Enough, enough,” said Admetus kindly, “such accidents may befall anybody. I will not pry into your concerns. It so happens that I am in need of a shepherd — do you think you could take care of my flocks?”
“Yes, I could do that,” said the youth, smiling. “Hire me as your shepherd, Admetus; and I promise you, you shall not repent it.”
“So be it, then,” replied the king. “But what shall we call you — for you must have some name, you know, while you are my servant?”
“Call me Delius,” said the youth, when he had thought a moment. “One name is as good as another — for an exile.”
As the year went by, the king was more and more delighted with his new shepherd. Never had his flocks so thriven and multiplied as under the care of Delius. In the lambing season, all his ewes brought forth twins; and yielded milk in pailfuls, after satisfying their younglings. As for the lambs, there was not one weakling among them; everyone grew up a noble beast, with fleece so fine and heavy that, when shearing time came, King Admetus had such a wool crop as had never been seen before. No sickness touched the flocks all that year; no prowling wolf broke into the folds or made prize of a stray lamb. And Admetus, seeing his wealth thus increased, often blessed the lucky hour that had brought this flower of shepherds to his door.
Meanwhile, Delius remained much of a stranger to his master and his master’s household. His occupation took him afield all day; he lodged in the servants’ quarter of the palace and shared their meals, but he rarely spoke to them and seemed wrapped in his own thoughts. They might have resented this but for an extreme gentleness of manner and a readiness to make himself useful in small domestic tasks, which won their goodwill. They set him down as well-meaning enough, but a little moonstruck… Countryfolk brought odd tales of his doings in the upland pastures. It seemed he would sit for hours playing on a harp he had made, shepherd fashion, with bits of wood, and sheep’s sinews, and the shell of a tortoise… playing to his sheep… and they would leave off nibbling the grass, and gather around him. That might be; sheep were silly enough for anything. But as for the story that wolves and foxes and other woodland creatures crept out of the thickets and lay down beside the sheep, listening also — that was, of course, an absurd invention of those ignorant rustics. Here, in Pherae, one knew better!
The year had passed, and the youth who called himself Delius stood before his master and claimed his discharge.
“Here are your wages for the year,” said the king; “they are twice what I paid to my last shepherd, but I own they are well earned. And I will gladly double them, if you will remain with me.”
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“It may not be, Admetus,” said Delius, “for my term of bondage ends today. Your kindness has made it light to me and shall not go unrewarded. But first, know who speaks to you — I am Phoebus Apollo.”
And as the king stared at him amazedly, the form of the young shepherd seemed to grow taller and more stately; his countenance took on celestial radiance, and a glory played around his golden hair.
Overcome with awe, Admetus bowed his head, saying: “Be propitious to me and mine, oh, high and holy god!”
“Look up, and fear not, Admetus,” said the god, graciously. “Trust me, I shall ever be a friend to this hospitable house. Now learn what brought me hither… You have heard of the great physician Asclepios, my son by a Thessalian maiden, and the miracles of healing that he wrought through the divine knowledge I gave him. In an unhappy hour, Asclepios was tempted to use his art beyond what was lawful — even to bring a dead man back to life. And thereupon Zeus slew him by a thunderbolt, lest the decrees of the Fates should be made of none avail, and Death be robbed of his dues. Then, in wrath and grief for my son’s loss, I sought to avenge him, and with my arrows I slew the cyclopes, the swart artisans of Zeus, who forge his thunderbolts. And for this, Zeus condemned me to be banished from the heavenly halls and become the servant of a mortal for the space of one year. My penance ends today, and now I go to take my place once more among the Olympians. But before I bid you farewell, Admetus, you shall desire what boon you will of me, in reward for your gentle treatment of your servant Delius. Think well what it shall be.”
The king reflected for some moments, and then — “Lord Phoebus,” he said, “I am now so prosperous a man that I have nothing left to wish for. By your blessing upon my flocks, I have more than ample wealth; my kingdom is at peace, my folk are loyal. I have a beautiful and most loving wife, and fair, thriving children. Grant me this, then — to live enjoying all the good things I now possess, to a green old age.”
“Half your prayer,” answered the god, “I willingly grant, but the other half is beyond my power. Your life shall be happy while it lasts; but not Zeus himself, oh, Admetus, can prolong it beyond its destined close; and that close is not far off. Be content — to every man on earth death must come soon or late, and happiest are they to whom it comes as the end of a brief but cloudless day.”
But the king was shaking with terror, and white to the lips.
“Tell me,” he gasped, “tell me, I adjure you, how soon am I to die?”
“It were best you should not know,” said Apollo; “yet, since I am loth to deny you anything — the day of the next new moon is fated to be your last.”
At that, Admetus broke into a passion of weeping, and casting himself down at the god’s feet, wildly besought him to have mercy… to give him but one more year, one little year of life, though never so wretched. He cried out that there must be some way… there must be something so mighty a god could do to save him … if he had any pity, if he had any gratitude towards one who had shown him all possible kindness, Apollo could not abandon him… Or was there indeed no pity with the gods? Were men to them as flies to wanton boys — things to be killed for pastime?
Apollo listened unmoved to these wild and whirling words until the king’s passion had spent itself, then gently said:
“Rise, Admetus, and hearken to me. There is one way of escape if you can consent to take it — and I see now that you will consent. That you may know that I am not ungrateful, I will do a great thing for your sake I will persuade the throned sisters, the Three Fates, to accept the life of one of your kindred instead of yours. But that life must be freely given. If, then, you can find such a substitute, you may live. More I cannot do for you — and so farewell.”