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
Whether Midas ever met Silenus again or not is unknown to the teller of this tale. But another —and an even stranger— adventure was in store for him, as you shall hear.
One summer eve, as he rambled among the pinewoods of the Valley, he came to the edge of an open glade, where a company were sitting, whom he instantly perceived to be other than mortals. That troop of beautiful girls, so tall and slender, with their green robes and wildflower garlands, he knew must be nymphs of the woods and mountains. They formed a half circle — and the other half was a band of shaggy, goat-legged satyrs. And that grand figure seated in the midst on a fallen tree trunk —goat-legged also, but with superbly-molded body and a countenance in which mirth and melancholy were strangely blended— that was the god Pan himself! His pipe of reeds fitted together was in his hand; a shepherd’s crook lay beside him; his large, mild eyes were turned towards a fair-haired youth who stood a little apart, leaning against a pine stem and holding a harp.
So much Midas had seen, when he was himself observed. The youth with the harp strode forward and, pointing with outstretched arm, exclaimed: “What man is that, yonder, who dares to spy upon us?”
Instantly the nymphs sprang up and stood at gaze like startled deer; the satyrs leaped to their feet and rushed upon Midas with angry cries. But the deep voice of Pan bade them forbear.
“Hold, my children,” said he, laughing, “let the man alone, for he is friend to a friend of ours. Come hither to me, King Midas, and fear not; you are welcome for Silenus’s sake. And now I bethink me, here is an umpire for us, Apollo.”
“As you will,” answered he with the harp, in cold, clear accents, “though methinks your nymphs and satyrs were better judges of our music than a mere mortal.”
“Nay, they are partisans,” said Pan, merrily, “and all for the flute and pipe, as your muses are all for the lyre.”
“We are in Phrygia,” said Apollo, “the home of the flute. The Greeks, mine own people, honor the lyre as it deserves — but this barbarian can know nothing of it.”
“The better, the better, oh, harper!” Pan replied. “You will have the more credit by your victory. What, was it not a greater triumph for Orpheus to tame the beasts of the forest by his harping than to draw iron tears down the cheek of Pluto? I verily think so; and let me tell you, when I am among those Greeks who are my people, even the shepherd folk of Arcady, I have more joy in piping unseen for their delight than you can feel when your lyre charms all the company of heaven.”
“You speak as a child of Earth,” returned Apollo, disdainfully, “but I am one of the Olympians, the heaven dwellers. Your ways are not as our ways, nor your thoughts as our thoughts. What should you know of our joys?”
“Yet, heaven dweller,” said Pan, and now his voice was solemn music, “you and I, and all the immortals, and the whole race of men, are of one family. The gods in their strength, men in their nothingness, come alike of one mother, holy Mother Earth. Who knows it better than you, wise lord of Delphi, that possess the secret place of her oracle? Despise not, then, the homely shepherd god.”
Apollo smiled. “Nay,” he said, “far be it from me — I know his powers too well. And I myself have played the shepherd ere now — in Thessaly.”
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“Yes,” said Pan, smiling also, “and the flocks of Admetus so throve under your tendance that he deemed you the very pearl of shepherd lads. But let us to this contest. It is yours to begin, since you are the challenger — and do you, Midas, listen well to both, for you are to judge between us.”
Then Apollo, taking his stand in the midst of the glade, struck with a golden quill one great preluding chord upon his seven-stringed golden lyre and began to play. The beams of the setting sun made a glory round his fair head; his long, white robe, such as minstrels wear, fluttered a little in the evening breeze. And as he played, not only Midas, but Pan and his woodland company, listened entranced. The lyre quivered like a live thing under the touch of the god; he seemed to be drawing forth from it the voice of a soul in ecstasy. Divine bliss, divine peace, were in that wordless song. It lifted the hearers into another world, serene and changeless, whence sorrow and sighing had fled away… And then the god’s own voice mingled with the appeasing, gracious harmony. He sang of Zeus, father and king of the Olympians, with whom began the reign of law in earth and heaven, whose wisdom sweetly ordereth the course of all things… And then of the divine power of music, which is one with order, and binds together the fabric of the universe.
“Oh, golden lyre,” he sang. “Oh, treasure of mine and of the muses, thou art a symbol of the mighty world, for the whole frame of things is a mystic harp, resounding eternal harmonies under the finger of gods.”
As Apollo ceased, the last rays of sunset faded and the woods were veiled in purple twilight. Midas could see only his white robe glimmering in the dusk and, beyond him, a ring of shadowy forms. There was deep silence for what seemed to him a long while. He felt afraid to speak.
But he thought, “This, then, is the glorious minstrelsy that the gods hear in heaven, at the feasts of King Zeus. There can be naught to equal it — my judgment shall be for Apollo.”
And then, out of the deepening dusk, came, faintly at first, the notes of a shepherd’s pipe…
Yes, that piping sounded faint and thin at first, after the melodious thunder of the lyre. But soon it rose in piercing sweetness, like the skylark’s carol; and now it was like the liquid warbling of a nightingale; and now like the sound of many waters…
Sometimes it breathed a heartrending sadness; sometimes the lilt of it made the pulses throb with the rapture of mere living. All the beauty, the mystery, the terror of life, were revealed as in a glass darkly, by the piping of Pan… It died away in the gloom… Was it Pan’s voice that Midas then heard murmuring —
Your chilly stars I can forgo,
this kind, warm world is all I know.
He could not be sure of that, or of anything, for some moments. He was like a man in a dream. Pan’s piping, he vaguely thought, was like the singing of Silenus.
“Speak, mortal,” came Apollo’s voice. “Are you for my music or for Pan’s? We await your judgment.”
“Glorious son of Zeus,” answered Midas, in trembling tones. “I give it for Pan. I listened enthralled to your celestial lyre, but the melody of his pipe is yet more ravishing to mine ears.”
“Then you have the ears of an ass,” cried Apollo with a burst of mocking laughter, “or deserve to have them. Ah, ha! A king with asses’ ears!”
There was something so terrible in that laughter that Midas turned and fled out of the glade at his utmost speed.