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
The many guests whom the far-famed hospitality of Admetus brought him were lodged in a set of chambers built around a small inner court of the palace. A postern on one side of the court led to the kitchen quarters; on the other, massive folding doors divided these apartments from the central hall. These doors were now shut and barred.
“Never in all my days,” exclaimed an indignant voice, “have I seen such a ruffian!”
It was the old slave Xanthias who spoke. He came from one of the guestrooms with a trayful of empty dishes, which he put down in the court; and then sat down beside it, looking very hot and weary.
“Never saw the like of him,” he went on, in grumbling soliloquy, “though we have guests of all sorts and from all parts here, and ’tis I that wait on them all. The worst of the lot, that’s what he is… Wasn’t it unmannerly enough to come in at all, when he saw our master was in mourning? But what does he do next? Calls for his dinner and, instead of taking civilly what we could put on table, begins bawling for this, that, and the other, though he knew there was a death in the house… And on top of that, he gets drunk… Ay, when he’s eaten enough for six, my lord must have his revel… puts on a myrtle wreath, swills down our best wine in pailfuls, and starts singing, or rather howling, like a beast. Hark at him now… And I had to wait on this rascal —thief or pirate is what I take him for— while she went out of the house, never to come back any more… I couldn’t see her go, my dear mistress, that was so good to us all, and always begged us off when the master was in one of his tempers… Couldn’t follow her, with the others, and give her the last salute… Oh, it’s hard to bear, that, very hard. And all because of this abominable fellow.”
As he spoke thus, tears gathered in the old man’s eyes. He wiped them hastily away with the sleeve of his coarse tunic and stood up.
“This will never do,” he muttered. “I must go back to him. The master gave me strict orders not to let him see there was anything wrong.”
But at this moment Heracles appeared at his chamber door and stepped into the court. His face was deeply flushed, and he reeled a little as he walked; he was singing, horribly out of tune, a snatch of some drinking song; a wreath of fresh myrtle sat rakishly askew on his bullet head. Seeing Xanthias, he left off singing, and addressed him with drunken solemnity — yet distinctly enough —
“What do you mean, sirrah, by pulling these long faces? Don’t you know it’s a servant’s duty to look pleasant when he waits on visitors? Instead of which, you have been looking as black as thunder at me all this time at your master’s best friend, mind you.”
Xanthias, taken aback, muttered something about the trouble in the house.
“Ay, ay,” said Heracles, nodding sagely, “I know what you mean. But she wasn’t one of the family — you must remember that. That would have been a different thing altogether. As it is, you have no business to be so gloomy and woebegone — so come here and listen to me, while I try and teach you better.”
He sat down on a marble bench near him and went on more solemnly than ever.
“Do you understand the nature of human existence, my friend? You don’t, of course —how should you?— but no matter, I’ll explain it to you. It’s like this… We must all die, but we none of us know when. Nobody can tell for certain whether he will be alive tomorrow, and all the wise men in the world put together can’t tell him either… Now, having taught you this great fact, which I hope you can grasp——”
“I knew it before,” put in Xanthias, curtly.
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“Why, all the better,” said Heracles, with sudden joviality, “but you don’t see the moral of it, which is that a man should eat and drink and kiss the girls while he may. There’s wisdom for you, my ancient! And now come along with me, and we’ll drown your grief in the wine cup. Come and drink, I say; that will soon stop your fretting over a woman who was nothing to you.”
“Nothing to me!” burst out Xanthias, uncontrollably. “My noble mistress nothing to me!”
He stopped, terrified at his own words, yet looked half-defiantly at Heracles.
“I have done it now,” he thought; “but it was his fault — he goaded me past bearing. He says nothing — pray heaven he’s too drunk to understand!”
Heracles neither spoke nor moved for several minutes. Xanthias noticed that his face had suddenly paled and hardened and that a curious gleam had come into his eyes. He frowned, not angrily, but like a man thinking deeply.
At last, rising to his feet — “So your master lied to me,” he said, quietly. “Why was that?”
Voice and manner were so transformed that Xanthias could hardly answer for sheer bewilderment. Was this the underbred, tipsy swashbuckler, who had invited a slave to hobnob with him a moment ago? This man who looked and spoke like the peer of kings? And with such an eye…
“My lord,” he faltered out, “it was because my master could not bear you should go away. He… he is so hospitable. And he feared you would not consent to stay if you knew his wife was dead.”
“When did she die?”
“It was this morning… about three hours before you came.”
Heracles drew a deep breath and began striding to and fro.
“Good gods,” he said, in a low voice, “what sort of man is this Admetus? To make me his guest by a heartless fraud — does he call that hospitality? I call it an outrage. For look what it has made me guilty of… not knowing. Alcestis… to think I have been feasting and reveling… and she lying dead within a few yards of me!”
With that, he snatched off the myrtle wreath and threw it from him angrily. For some moments he stood fixed in thought; then, turning to Xanthias — “I am going to your lady,” he said, calmly. “Which is the way to the tomb?”
“Straight along the Larissa road,” replied the wondering slave. “You will see it as soon as you are outside the town. But, pardon me, you will be too late. It is near sunset, and the mourners must be already returning.”
Heracles smiled at him kindly as he answered, “I shall not be too late, good soul, for what I have to do. Now listen; you must take me quietly out of the house by some back way. Tell Admetus when he returns that I could not stay, and have gone northward on my errand. And… forgive me for wounding that faithful heart of yours, not knowing what I did; it may be I shall make you amends soon.”
He held out his hand as to an equal; the old slave clasped it timidly, with a look that showed the amends were made already.
“He is a king,” thought Xanthias. “Only a king could have done that.”