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
Early on a beautiful summer morning, a small company of ancient men took their way through the streets of Phere and entered the courtyard of the king’s palace. The rich though plain attire of these persons, no less than their grave and reverend aspect, betokened them for what they were the elders of the little city. The courtyard was empty; the great door of the house, under the pillared portico, stood wide open, but no sound came from within; the whole palace might have been deserted, so deep a silence reigned in place of the usual cheerful morning bustle.
“I fear,” whispered an elder, looking around him uneasily, “I fear, friends, early as it is, we come too late… No one about, you see, and the house as still as… death. What can this mean but that yonder noblest of all women has already breathed her last?”
“Noblest indeed,” sighed another elder. “Alas, and is she gone so quickly — before I could look once more on her sweet face and bid her long farewell? May the earth lie lightly on thee, dear and gentle lady!”
“Nay, wait,” said a third elder, “all cannot yet be over. For look, there is no vase of holy water set on the threshold, nor doorkeeper in readiness to sprinkle those who enter — as there would be, had Death entered. See, here comes one of the queen’s handmaids — she will tell us what is happening within.”
And as a young girl, who was crying bitterly, came down the broad steps into the courtyard, the elders hurried forward and eagerly asked for news of her mistress.
“She is dying fast,” sobbed the handmaiden. “Oh, my lady, my sweet lady, we have lost her — her, that was like a mother to us all.”
“Hush, girl!” an elder admonished her; “though you may well mourn, the household’s affliction is a small thing besides the master’s. Think what he loses this day — the most devoted wife man ever had.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the girl, drying her eyes and regarding the old man with disfavor. “You never said a truer word than that. Was there ever a wife before who so loved her husband that she laid down her life for him? But as for thinking of his loss — if he had thought of it himself, it would have been better for him, and for us all. But not he!”
“This is no way to speak!” replied the scandalized elder. “All our city knows that the king is plunged in the deepest grief; that he has prepared the most splendid funeral, and ordered that his people shall go into strict mourning for a year. Yes, for a whole twelvemonth they are to wear black and keep their hair shorn close, and clip the manes of their horses; and all music, whether of harp or flute, is interdicted throughout the land during that time. Such unheard-of honors will Admetus pay to his wife’s memory. What more could he have done, oh, foolish maid? Bridle your tongue, then, I pray you — and remember your place.”
And he wagged his grey beard at her, reprovingly. But the girl, a favorite slave born and bred in the palace, was not to be abashed by a mere citizen, however venerable.
“Dear gods,” she cried, “but you are all alike, then, you men! A grand funeral — the country in mourning for a year and what more could any woman want, you cry. But can you not see that the whole thing is a mockery? Yes, I will say it — it is a hollow, pitiful mockery for the king to play the sorrowing widower, when his wife’s death is his own doing… Oh, he is terribly grieved over it, I grant you… I left him sobbing at her bedside and talking in the wildest way about what he would do, and how unbearable life will be without her…”
“Alas, our hearts bleed for him,” exclaimed an elder, dolorously; “and did not this move you, callous girl?”
“No,” she said boldly. “For the one thing he could do — the one thing worth saying never seemed to enter his mind. But it must have entered hers, I think, as she listened. If she were not the saint she is, she would have said to him, ‘Why do you keep telling me these things? If you cannot bear to live without me, you need not. There is still time for you to refuse the sacrifice you — asked for.’ And, oh, blessed gods, what is the man made of, that he did ask for it from her!”
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“He did not,” said another elder, half deprecatingly, “until he had made trial of everyone else near and dear to him. His aged father and mother——”
“I know,” interrupted the girl; “he pleaded hard with them, but they soon sent him about his business — said they had always done their duty as parents, but it was no part of it to die in his stead, and against all reason for him to expect such a thing. And so he goes and prays his wife to save him… Ah, there was no need! Almost before he could get out the words —the wonder is, they did not choke him— she told him calmly, even smiling, that she was ready to pay his ransom.”
“So we heard with wonder,” murmured the old men. “Oh, marvellous Alcestis! Oh, courageous heart!”
“Do you say so?” cried the handmaiden. “Then you shall wonder still more — you shall hear how my lady has spent these last hours of hers on earth… Before daybreak, while all the household still slept, she rose and bathed her beautiful body, and put on her richest robe, and her choicest jewels. And when we handmaids came and found her so attired, and asked why she had done this without calling us, she smiled at us and said, ‘Do you not know I am to die today, my maidens? I have made myself ready for my burial to spare you the pain of doing that afterward. Hush, no weeping or lamenting; let me make my last prayers at the household altars in fitting quietude.’ Then she bade us bring myrtle branches from the garden, and we followed, choking down our sobs, while she went to every altar in the palace, and decked it with myrtle, and said a prayer there. But first, she went into the great hall and kneeled down before Hestia’s image beside the hearth, and prayed. ‘Our Lady of the Hearth,’ she said, ‘since I go even now to the grave and gate of Death, hear the last prayer I shall ever make to thee. Be thou the guardian of my orphan children; grant that my boy may find a loving wife and my girl a noble husband. And may they not die untimely, like their mother, but see long and happy days in the land.’
“Oh, sirs, you spoke of her courage — but could you have seen my lady all this while! Her voice never faltered; she did not shed one tear, nor even turn pale there was the same lovely color as always in her cheeks. Only once, she gave way; that was when her rounds brought her to her own chamber. She went in, and threw herself upon the bed… then indeed she wept as though her heart would break… ‘My bed,’ she moaned, ‘mine and his — for whom I die, farewell, farewell…! Some other woman will lie here when I am gone… happier in her fate, perhaps… but not more true to thee…’ And she lay there weeping till the pillow was all soaked with her tears. When she had wept her fill, she rose and came as far as the threshold of the chamber; but there she turned, and ran back and again threw herself on the bed. Twice she did that, before she could find strength to come away; but after that, she was as calm as before… Then the two little ones were brought to her in the hall for a last embrace; she took them in her arms and kissed them again and again, while they clung to her, frightened and crying. And the whole household stood round in tears, lamenting their beloved mistress. Ah, none of us will ever forget how, even in that hour, she could think of us still! She gave her hand to every one of us and there is not a slave in the palace so rough and lowly, not a scullion or groom, but she spoke a farewell to him, and he to her. Was it not like her gracious ways? For she knew how we all loved her, and what it would mean to each of us ever after, to be able to say, ‘Our queen took leave of me before she… died.'”
The girl’s voice trembled over the last word, and she began weeping afresh.
The elders, who had listened to her with deep attention, now thanked her solemnly for a tale so worthy the hearing.
“But,” said one, “I would fain ask, damsel, where was the king, while his wife was doing all this?”
“I do not know,” said the girl, shrugging her shoulders, “we saw nothing of him until the leave-taking was over — nor wanted to,” she added, bitterly.
“And that was how long since?” asked the elder, prudently ignoring the remark.
“Not more than half an hour,” said she; “but why do you ask?”
“Because, when you first spoke to us,” said the elder, “you told us your mistress was fast dying; yet now we hear that less than an hour since she moved and spoke like one in health.”
“And so she did,” the girl replied, “until she had ended her farewells to the servants, and dismissed them all except her women. Then a sudden deathly change came over her face; she reeled and would have fallen, but that I ran forward and caught her. ‘It is the end,’ she whispered; ‘call Admetus.’… He came in at that moment, took her up in his arms, and laid her on a couch. We thought for a moment she had swooned; but no, ’twas the deathstroke. Her eyes were wide open, and she could speak, faintly, but her face had turned grey and drawn, like the faces of the dying. And there she lies, with the life ebbing out of her… and her head on the man’s breast that she dies to save. I could not bear to look at her anymore; that was why I came out here.”
She ended with a fresh burst of tears. And the old men, much moved, began to say one after another, “Alcestis, Alcestis, can we do naught for thee…? Nay, vain is the help of man… Come, brothers, let us at least pray for her… Pray we fervently to Apollo the Healer, if haply he will yet save her who is to us as a beloved daughter… Oh, Paean, hear us! Oh, son of Leto, be merciful unto us!”
Thus they pattered prayers, until the handmaid checked them with uplifted finger. “Hush,” she said. “Look, they are bringing out my lady. She lives yet — they are carrying her down the steps, couch and all. Strange! But stand aside, I pray you, kind sirs.”
And the elders hastily drew back, for a certain sacred awe forbade them to look too closely on the final scene.