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
“Heracles! Can this be you? They told me you were gone, hours ago.”
Though it was near midnight, Admetus sat beside the hearth in his great hall. Old servants had pleaded with him to go to rest, but he had roughly bidden them leave him alone, for there was no rest for him that night — least of all in what was her room. So he remained in his own chair by the hearth, staring wretchedly into the fire, until from very weariness he dropped asleep. Awaking with a start, he saw Heracles standing before him. A little way off, in the shadow of a pillar, stood another figure, which he did not notice for the moment.
“Admetus,” began Heracles, abruptly, “if a man has a grievance against his friend, he should speak out — not hold his tongue and let it rankle. So first I must tell you this — being your friend, I had a claim to share in your sorrow, and to keep the truth from me as you did was treating me most unkindly and unfairly. Surely you must see that.”
“Oh, Heracles, indeed I meant no unkindness,” pleaded Admetus, “I would not offend you for the world. But I was so miserable, and it would have been the last straw to make you unhappy too — and see you go away from me.”
“Well, well,” said Heracles, “we will say no more of that. I did not come back to reproach you in your grief, my friend. No — I have come because we are friends still, and I want you to do me a service.”
“You have only to name it,” said the king, fervently.
“Well, it is this,” said Heracles. “I want you to take charge for me of this woman here until I come back from Thrace; if by any mishap I should not come back, you may keep her as a handmaid.”
So saying, he turned to the figure waiting in the shadows and led it forward. It was the figure of a woman, cloaked and veiled as if for traveling, so that more could not be seen of her than that she was tall and graceful.
The king stared amazedly at her as she stood before him, passive and mute, leaning on Heracles’s arm.
“I… I don’t understand!” he said, uneasily. “Who is this woman? Where have you brought her from?”
“Do you think I have stolen her?” said Heracles, smiling. “No, no, man, she is my lawful prize — from a wrestling bout. A hard tussle I had to get her, too, I promise you. This was how it was. Before I had got far on my road, I came on a great gathering of country folk holding athletic sports. There were prizes of horses for the running and jumping; cattle for the boxing and wrestling, with a woman slave as extra prize for the best wrestler. So it seemed a shame not to make a little honest profit when it came in my way, you see. But, as I said, you must look after the woman for the present.”
“Heracles,” said the king, much agitated, “I beg of you, do not ask me this. You have many friends in Pherae; let her go to one of them, who has not been through what I have… I tell you, I cannot have her here; I suffer enough already, without being perpetually reminded of my loss.”
“But why should this woman remind you of it?” asked Heracles, gently.
The king’s gaze was still riveted on the veiled form.
“So like, so like!” he said in a broken voice; “my wife’s very image in shape, and height and carriage! Heracles, for pity’s sake, take her out of my sight… It kills me to look at her… Unhappy wretch that I am,” he added with a burst of tears, “I never tasted the whole bitterness of grief till now. Oh, my Alcestis, my lost wife!” And he covered his face with his hands, sobbing aloud.
Heracles felt the arm that rested on his tremble, and move as though to withdraw itself; a low, shuddering sigh came from beneath the veil.
“Not yet,” he whispered, quickly, “he is too unprepared.” Then, in an earnest tone — “Ah, if only it were Alcestis I had brought you, my poor friend! If only your strong Heracles were strong enough to bring her back out of the Underworld to the light of day! What would you say to me, if I could do that for you?”
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Admetus looked up, drearily; “I know how gladly you would do it,” he said, “but… where is the use of talking like that? Nothing can bring the dead to life again. She will never come back… never, never, never, And I… I shall go mourning for her all my days.”
“She deserves that you should,” said Heracles, “and yet, Admetus, it is not right, nor manly, to give way utterly to sorrow. Try to bear up; and remember, time heals all wounds, even when they are as deep as yours… Nay, forgive me, it is easy to preach, I know… And now I must say farewell; but before I go, will you not, for my sake, receive this stranger? Come, take her by the hand.”
But Admetus shrank back in dismay. “No, no,” he cried, “by Zeus your father, I implore you, do not ask me that again! I cannot do it… I have told you why I cannot. And I beg you to take her away.”
“Listen to me, Admetus,” said Heracles, quietly. “I ask you the small service of housing this woman, and you refuse because of a certain fancied likeness without so much as seeing her face, remember! Very well, be it so; I will take her away. But do you know what you are going to do, first? You are going to let me put her hand in yours, and then… lift her veil and look at her well. After that, she shall go at once… if you wish. Now, no questions; it is enough for you to know that I have a good reason for choosing you shall do this thing.”
Their eyes met for an instant, and Admetus suddenly felt himself powerless in the presence of a stronger will.
“I yield,” he said, reluctantly stretching out his hand, “though it is like making me touch the head of Medusa — such nameless dread is upon me.”
“Courage, friend,” said Heracles, “you shall thank me for this yet. Take her hand… Have you got it…? Bravely done… And now, draw that veil aside, and see if she is really so like… your queen.”
Mechanically, as in a dream, the king obeyed.
“I have done this before,” flashed through his mind, but without consciousness that he was repeating the symbolic act that closed the rites of marriage — the bridegroom’s unveiling of the bride as she was given into his hands.
The next instant his cry rang through the hall — “Oh, gods in heaven, who is this?” He dropped the hand he held —cold and light it had lain in his— and stood quivering, looking at that mute, unveiled face with a terrible hunger in his eyes. “Is it you, is it you, Alcestis?” he babbled. “Have you come back to me… out of the grave? She does not answer… Heracles, why doesn’t she speak to me? For it is my wife, isn’t it…? Oh, no, no, how could that be…? Only some trick of the mocking gods — only a phantom in her likeness.
But Heracles answered cheerfully, in his deep, cordial voice — “Do you take me for a necromancer, then, Admetus? Nay, I deal neither in phantoms nor ghosts; she I have brought you is a living woman… and your wife. Touch her again — take her in your arms — and you will know. But because she has passed through the grave, the Underworld gods have power over her until the third day of her return to life — and till then she may not break silence… Now, king, I leave you to such happiness as I pray the gods may not grudge to one of us mortals.”
“Oh, Heracles,” burst out Admetus, “I know you now for what men call you the son of almighty Zeus. How else could you have wrought this miracle that my brain reels to think upon?”
“There was no miracle,” said Heracles, simply. “What happened was this. I knew, as all men know, that King Death ever comes at nightfall to taste his blood offering at the tombs of the newly buried. So I lay in ambush till he came —a weird, black-hooded shape— then rushed out and grappled with him. And though he wrestled with all his hell-born strength, I so mauled him that he was glad to get out of my grip on condition of surrendering his prey — who now stands here. But lead her to her room, Admetus — she is faint and weary. And now, farewell, for I must be taking the road again.”
“Ah, no,” cried Admetus, “do not leave us — you need not, now. Stay and be our guest, in this house you have saved.”
“Another time I will,” said Heracles, “but not now, for my business presses. Farewell, live happy — and in future, my friend, practice truer courtesy to guests.”
With that he strode to the door; but paused there a moment, and looked back smiling at those two, already clinging together. Admetus had forgotten all else in the ecstasy of that reunion. But Alcestis, with her soul in her eyes, met the parting look of her preserver. And it seemed to her that she saw verily the god within him light his face.”