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
Next day, nothing was talked of in the city but the extraordinary old man who had bewitched King Midas in his own palace hall. Bewitched was the word used by eyewitnesses — slaves of the royal household who had brought the tale with them to the morning market and few of their listeners could doubt that it was the right word. A little group of elderly townsmen, given to argument and wine bibbing, professed indeed to see nothing marvelous in the matter. The king, they said, being in a favorable stage of liquor, had taken a whim to admit this tipsy trespasser to his drinking party, instead of killing him; the old fellow’s ludicrous aspect and behavior had saved his skin, and this was the only witchcraft he had used. No wonder the king was tickled; who could choose but laugh when the mad wag seized the Lord Axius’s cup and nearly sat down atop of him?… Well, it was wine had put courage in his heart and mercy in the king’s; great were the virtues of the grape, so let them all bless Bacchus for his gift of it, and be moving on to the tavern, now the market was emptying…
At this point, the conversation of these worthies was interrupted by a grave and dignified person who had been standing near them, and in whom they recognized the king’s chief butler.
“You mistake the matter, my masters,” said he, pompously. “I should rather say, you have not heard the whole of it. Wine is a great power, a very great power, and the gift of a very great god — I was glad to hear you speak so wisely about that, and bless his name — it showed a right way of thinking. I commend you there. But, as I say, you have not been told all” — and he shook his head with an air of mystery.
They assured him that, like the rest of the townsfolk, they had heard the whole scene at the palace described, from the moment when the two shepherds dragged in their prisoner until, to everyone’s stupefaction, he was installed as a guest in the place of honor next the king. Others might see witchcraft in that, but for their part, they saw nothing but a freak of royal humor.
“But you do not know what happened after that?” said the chief butler.
“One might guess,” said one townsman, with a laughing eye, “that the worshipful company were carried drunk to bed. But what did happen?” he added hastily, seeing the chief butler frown.
“Why, it is a long story,” said the chief butler meditatively, “and I am keeping you from the tavern.”
On this hint, he was pressingly invited by the whole group to accompany them, if indeed his palate could condescend to a vintage only fit for simple citizens; and after no more hesitation than served to give proper value to the favor, he graciously consented. The wine, he was pleased to say after the third cup, was very far from bad, if not —his hosts must excuse him— quite equal to what he was in the habit of drinking. The worthy townsmen smiled and exchanged sly glances; the tavern keeper, piqued, muttered under his breath, “Equal! No, nor would be, unless ’twere vinegar.”
For it was pretty well known that, while King Midas owned all the best of the vineyards for which Phrygia was famous, and the wine he drank with his guests was a liquor for the gods, that served out to his household was of the vilest description — the dregs and last pressings of the grape vats. Nor durst the chief butler himself make free with the royal cellars, so rigorously was he held to account by his master — the fact being that this king’s ruling passion was avarice; and whither it brought him we shall presently see. It had already led him to most unkingly trafficking in the produce of his superb vineyards; the thing was done by discreet agents, but everyone knew of it. The very wine on which the chief butler was now bestowing qualified approval had been bought from one of those agents by the tavern keeper, whose reputation for good vintages had arisen from a series of such dealings. Therefore he now muttered a sneer, and the townsmen —regular customers who were in the secret— smiled knowingly at each other. But presently they were all listening, with bated breath, to the chief butler’s tale.
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“This old man called Silenus,” he began, when he had emptied the fourth cup, “had bidden the cupbearer fill twice, or it may be thrice, after settling himself on the couch, when says he to the king — ‘Bid your rabble of slaves go forth of the hall, Midas, for I can never talk freely in the presence of men unfree. And I am in the mood for talking. Besides, they are dead drowsy — send them away, that they may sleep.’ And the king sent them away — his bodyguard and all. But he said, pointing to me, ‘I suppose my chief butler may stay to fill our cups for us?’ The old man said, ‘Certainly, I am all for having our cups filled; let him do his office.’ So I stayed… I can tell you, my friends, I began to feel then that I must be in a dream… This Silenus — the gods only know who he is or where he comes from sitting there with his great paunch and his deerskin, such as the hillmen wear, and speaking to our lord like one king to another. And our lord, who never took his eyes off him from the time he came in — did you hear that, masters? No? Ah, ha, I noticed it — few men more noticing than I, though I say it — well, as I was saying, our lord the king doing his bidding like a child. Ay, and listened like a child to a fairy tale while the old man talked, as he called it — but it was not talking at all — it was singing.”
“What kind of singing?” asked one of the townsmen curiously, as the chief butler paused to drink.
“The strangest I ever heard,” he answered. “Now it was like the voice of a minstrel singing to his harp, and now like the harp itself — just a sweet, thrumming sound, without words… But there were words most of the time… some kind of long poem, such as wandering minstrels chant at the king’s feasts. Only, they sing deeds of kings and heroes, things a plain man can understand; but what this poem was all about was beyond me. Perhaps the king and his boon companions knew. Anyhow, they listened, as I was saying, like children to a fairy tale.
“It began, I think, about the way the world was made… about a time before Time was when there was neither Earth, Air, Fire nor Water, but only the Seeds of them floating in Empty Space… and how the Seeds got sifted out somehow into their four kinds and became Four Elements… and land and sea and sky, and all creatures, from worms to men, were all formed out of these Elements. A likely tale! As if everyone did not know that Earth and Sky are gods that have been from everlasting, and that Prometheus made the first man out of red clay. This Silenus with his Seeds and his Elements, forsooth! Can any of you tell a plain man like myself what he meant by them?”
His listeners assured him truthfully that they could not. On the contrary, it now appeared to them that Silenus must be a madman — which would explain a good deal.
“But not everything,” said the chief butler, nodding sapiently. “For instance, though his song seems the veriest jargon now I try to recollect it, I must own that, while it lasted, it seemed most wonderful and delightful. There was a great deal more of it, which I cannot recollect at all… It went on and on for hours and I thought I could have listened to it forever… It seemed to be letting me into some great, happy secret that was the only thing worth knowing, and would make a new man of me… Not a slave anymore… a king, a king!”
The chief butler spoke the last words in a wistful tone, very unlike his usual pompous utterance, and remained silent for some minutes, staring dreamily in front of him. He started, as the tavern keeper, at a sign from one of his hosts, quietly refilled his cup.
“Well, as I was saying,” he resumed in his usual voice, “this song the old man kept on singing had not a word of sense in it from beginning to end. But I do not think he is a madman. A madman could not have done what he did with the king — I tell you, our lord was like so much wax in his hands. Besides, the man was too easy, too merry — yet not riotously so. The way he carried his drink witnessed to a sound mind in a sound body. My friends, among his other singularities Silenus may boast himself the most powerful drinker that ever was known in Phrygia. For you must know I did my office all the while he was crooning that song of his —though I replenished the cups like one in a dream— and the mere truth is, when morning dawned, the king and his friends lay in a dead slumber on their couches. But as the first rays of sunrise darted into the hall —now dark, for the torches had burnt down to their sockets—, Silenus got to his feet and went out, more steadily than he came in… And so it was I that saw the last of him.”
“Is he gone, then?” exclaimed one of the listeners. “We heard nothing of that.”
“I daresay not,” said the chief butler; “you have heard the gossip of underlings, who ever mar a curious tale in the telling, as the saying goes. Ay, Silenus is gone — and what is more, the king is gone after him.” He paused to enjoy the effect of this upon his audience; then added: “Our lord’s first demand on waking was, what had become of Silenus. We searched the palace in vain and trembled for our skins. But the king neither fell into a rage nor ordered a hue and cry after him — ‘He will have gone back to the Valley of Roses,’ he said, in marvelous good humor, ‘and if my luck holds I shall find him there.’ And he commanded his hunting train to be got ready on the instant for a chase among the hills. Yes, our lord has gone a-hunting, with nets and spears and great retinue, after his manner — but this time neither wild boar nor deer nor mountain lion is his quarry. No, worthy friends; there is some glamour cast upon him, and his chase is after that tipsy, bloated, enchanting old vagabond called Silenus.”