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
Towards noontide the elders were alone again in the palace courtyard. By the king’s desire, they were waiting to follow the funeral procession which was to set out within an or hour two for the royal sepulchre near the city. This was a great marble tomb, containing several chambers; and to one of these, as yet untenanted, the dead queen was to be carried on an open bier, according to custom. On the morrow, the corpse would be burned where it lay, and the chamber closed up until, as Admetus was heard declaring, “the longed-for hour should bring him to rest beside his wife.”
The old men, sitting in a shady corner of the court, were talking in low tones about the tragic event of the day; they started, as a deep voice called cheerily from the gateway — “Good morrow, old sirs! I would see Admetus — is he at home?” and rose hurriedly as the speaker strode towards them.
He was a man in the prime of life, below middle stature, but powerfully built; a lionskin and a quiver hung from his broad shoulders, and he carried for sole weapon a huge bow. His rather coarse features wore an expression of jovial good humor; yet a certain dignity in his mien, and still more the reddish glint in his quick, grey eye, bade the onlooker beware of trifling with him.
The chief elder addressed him with grave respect.
“Admetus is within, oh, Heracles,” he said, “but——” he paused, embarrassed.
Evidently, the newcomer had not heard what had befallen; but to break tidings to this honored guest of the house, which would perforce send him away, was a responsibility better left to others. On the other hand, it would not do to let Heracles go straight indoors unwarned. It would be best to detain him until some of the household appeared… Quickly recovering himself, the old man went on:
“I was about to say, may we learn what quest now brings you to Pherae? For well we know that you are evermore faring forth on some adventure.”
“You say true, good friend,” said Heracles, smiling, “for I am bound to the service of my cousin, the king of Argos, and he sends me up and down the world on one dangerous errand after another, until I often laugh to think what task he will devise next to get rid of me. Ha, ha! He always hopes I shall not come back, does Eurystheus, and I always do. Which is hard on my dear kinsman, you know. But never mind that now; this time I have to fetch him a team of four horses from the stud of one Diomed, somewhere in Thrace.”
“Impossible!” exclaimed the elder. “Have you never heard what manner of man is Diomed the Thracian, and what sort of horses he keeps?”
“Not I,” said Heracles, indifferently. “It is a far cry from Argos to Thrace, and I have never been there. But as you seem to know him, tell me about this Diomed.”
“All Thessaly, all the North country knows him by report,” said the elder. “He is the chief of a savage Thracian tribe; his horses are the apple of his eye, and get them you never will, unless you kill him first.”
“Well, I shall have to kill him, then,” replied Heracles; “for get them I must.”
“Alas!” said the old man. “The combat will be desperate; and I doubt even you may find your match in this fierce son of Ares, the war god.”
“Oh, he is a son of Ares, is he?” said Heracles, and burst out laughing. “Well, that is just my luck — how many more of them are there, I wonder?” Then, as the elders stared at him in surprise — “I have killed two sons of Ares already,” he explained. “First there was Lycaon, and then Cycnus, terrible fellows both of them; and now here is another. A fine life I shall have of it, if I am to fight the whole family in turn. However, it’s all in the day’s work.”
We pray you may overcome Diomed,” said the chief elder, earnestly. “But even so, you will find it impossible to bring away his horses. Fearful beasts they are — so savage that none but their master dare go near them; not even you could put bit or bridle on such monsters, believe me.”
“I will, though,” said Heracles, “unless they blow flames out of their nostrils. Are they that kind of monster, eh?” And he laughed again.
“No,” said the old man, nettled; “but what is as bad, or worse, they are man-eaters. They are fed on the raw flesh of captives, who are flung —some say alive— into the mangers, to be torn in pieces by their ravening jaws. Their stalls run with blood——”
“Come, come!” interrupted Heracles, quietly. “We are talking about horses, you know — not lions and tigers. Horses don’t eat meat, my friend; for why, they couldn’t if they wanted to. I wager these Thracian brutes have savaged a groom or two, and that has started the story. But a wise man like yourself should know better than to put faith in idle tales.”
“Nay, I have it from one who has seen the blood-stained mangers with his own eyes,” protested the elder. “Moreover——”
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“Hush, here comes the king,” whispered one of his companions, touching him on the arm. Pale, dressed in black, and with his hair cut close to his head, Admetus was slowly descending the steps into the courtyard, followed by an ancient serving man. His face lighted up as he saw Heracles.
“Hail, son of Zeus, hail, prince of Argos,” he cried and came up to him with outstretched hand.
“Hail, king of Thessaly,” responded Heracles as he clasped it, smiling happily. “I am right glad to see you again, noble Admetus. But what’s this — why are you in mourning?”
“There is… a funeral here today,” said Admetus, looking away from him.
“I hope to heaven,” exclaimed Heracles, “nothing is wrong with your children?”
“No, no, they are both well,” the other assured him.
“Ah, then,” said Heracles, “it is your father, I suppose? Well, I am grieved for you; but after all, he was ripe for death, at his age.”
“Very true, Heracles,” replied Admetus, with a bitter smile, “but as it happens, he is in excellent health — and my aged mother also.”
Heracles looked at him for a moment, puzzled by his strange look and tone; then: “You do not mean to tell me,” he said, anxiously, “that you have lost… your wife? Admetus, what is the matter with you? Why don’t you answer me? Speak, man; I ask you again, is Alcestis dead? You can say yes or no, at least,” he ended, impatiently.
“Nay, but you see… that is just what I cannot,” stammered Admetus; “for —be patient, Heracles, I pray you— in one sense, my wife is… dead… and yet she is still… among the living.”
“I do not understand a word you say,” said Heracles, bluntly. “Dead, and yet alive — who is to make head or tail of that, I should like to know? Come, talk like a sensible man, and drop riddles — I don’t like them.”
Admetus pulled himself together with an effort.
“Why,” he said, glibly enough, “all I meant was, that one doomed to death may be reckoned already dead. You see that, surely?”
“No, I do not,” said Heracles. “Being alive is one thing, and being dead is another. Neither do I see what all this has got to do with Alcestis.”
“You forget, then,” answered Admetus, reproachfully, “for I sent you word that her life is forfeit to the Fates, she having vowed to yield it them in place of mine.”
At that, as he hoped, Heracles’s perplexed frown vanished, and he gave a huge sigh of relief. For in that message to his friend, as Admetus gladly remembered, there had been one important omission; he had shrunk, somehow, from letting him know that the sacrifice of Alcestis must be made not in some indefinite future, but at a near and certain date; and now he blessed as prudence what had been the prompting of an uneasy conscience.
“Oh, so that is what you were thinking of!” said Heracles, smiling again. “Now I understand you. Yes, you told me that Alcestis, like the noble woman and true wife she is, has vowed to die in your stead, if need be. And so you talk as if you had lost her already. Nay, cheer up, man, and don’t meet trouble halfway; you are not likely to die yet awhile, nor she either. Time enough to mourn that loss when it comes. All’s well, it seems, with your wife and family. But for whom, then, are you in mourning? One of your household?”
“Yes,” faltered Admetus. “She… she belonged to the household… though not… born in it. She was a kinswoman of mine,” he went on, “and lost her father when she was a mere girl, so she lived here until she… died.”
“Poor thing,” said Heracles, compassionately. “I warrant you gave her a good home, my friend; and I can see that her death has a good deal upset you. Well, this is my bad luck again; I came hoping for a merry carouse with you, but now I must seek a night’s lodging with one of your good townsfolk. Farewell, Admetus; a happier meeting to us both” — and with a wave of his hand, he turned towards the gateway. But Admetus caught him by the sleeve.
“You are not going?” he exclaimed. “What, come to Pherae and stay under any roof but mine? I will not hear of it — you cannot mean to affront me so.”
“I mean no affront,” said Heracles, gently, “but it is not fitting that you should entertain any guest, just now… when you have Death in the house. Let me go, Admetus, and I will owe you a thousand thanks for your hospitable kindness, though I must not accept it.”
“I will not let you go,” cried Admetus. “If you have any regard for a friend who loves you, I entreat you to remain. True, my house is a house of mourning; but the dead are… dead. My duty now is to the living… Listen, Heracles; you shall be lodged in the chambers set apart for guests, shut off by thick folding doors from the rest of the house. There you can rest and feed, out of sight and hearing of… what goes on. I will send a trusty servant to attend you… this Xanthias here… Come, go in with him, I beseech you.”
“Be it as you will,” answered Heracles, reluctantly; “it would be churlish to refuse, since you press me so.”
The king turned to the old slave, who had followed him.
“You hear, Xanthias?” he said. “The lord Heracles will honor our house with his presence this day. Take him straightway to the guest chambers and serve him with food and wine of the best. And —hark in your ear— shut fast the middle doors; my guest must banquet unvexed by any sounds of woe, you understand.”