This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
Beautiful Aphrodite, the queen of love, traveled over the sea and through the sky every day of her life, looking for princes and princesses, or shepherds and shepherdesses, who wanted her help. When she went across the sea, she sailed in the great silver shell which had first carried her to land, while blue and green water nymphs sometimes played about her and sometimes rode on their dolphins, laughing and singing, with the foam sparkling like diamonds in their long hair; Tritons, too, swam like mermen through the water, blowing trumpets made of shells.
When Aphrodite traveled in the air, the procession was more wonderful still. She had a golden chariot drawn by four white doves, harnessed with strings of emeralds and rubies and pearls; and hundreds of little birds flew around it in a cloud, singing with all their might. With her in the chariot went Cupid, who, as you know, could sometimes look like a fairy prince, and sometimes like a little laughing child. But, whether he was a prince or a tiny boy, he always had his beautiful wings on his shoulders and carried his bow and arrows, which he used whenever his mother told him so to do.
Now those of Cupid’s arrows which were tipped with magical gold could make people fall hopelessly in love, as Psyche had done. If ever Aphrodite saw a handsome couple who, she thought, ought to get married, she would tell Cupid to fit his gold-tipped arrows, one by one, to his bow and to shoot at the good-looking pair. The youth and the maiden would each feel a little prick somewhere near their hearts, and the magic would get into the tiny wound made by the arrow. Instantly they would make up their minds that, unless they could get married, there would never be happiness in the world for either of them.
Among the fairest of all fair maidens in those times was a girl of princely race, called Hero, whose parents had vowed her to the service of the queen of love forever. So she spent her days in a big and beautiful temple, where the people sang songs in honor of Aphrodite and burned fragrant spices to give pleasure to the Shining Lady.
One morning, when Hero was there, hanging the temple with garlands and filling the crystal dishes with sweet-smelling spices, a youth called Leander came walking up between the ivory pillars, and caught sight of her. He paused, thinking how beautiful she was. At that moment, Aphrodite, who was in the temple, hidden among the silvery mists of the burning spices and the bowers of the delicate blossoms, saw the handsome stranger and decided, all in a minute, that Hero and Leander must be made to fall in love. She whispered quickly to Cupid, who was with her, to take his bow and arrows and to shoot at the fair maiden and the handsome youth. Cupid obeyed, and Hero and Leander, meeting each other’s glances, immediately loved each other better than anybody or anything in the world.
All day Leander lingered near the temple, waiting for an opportunity to speak to Hero. She, however, kept shyly away from him, busy with her flowers and spices, yet thinking of him the whole time, her heart beating very fast indeed. At last, when she left the temple to go home, he drew near to her and gazed into her face. Then, without a word, they both knew that separation from each other would kill them with grief.
When once they were sure of this they talked and kissed, and told each other how wonderful and how beautiful it all was. Hero explained that, although she spent the day in the temple, she went every night to a big tower at the edge of the sea, where she lived quite alone with her old nurse. Then Leander said joyfully that he knew the tower quite well. The sea by which it stood was merely a narrow strait called the Hellespont, and his own home was at Abydos, just across the water. He added that a strong swimmer, such as he, could swim across the strait, and that he intended to do so and to visit Hero in her tower every evening when she came home from the temple.
Hero trembled with joy, but also with fear. She knew that her father and mother, who meant her to spend her life weaving garlands and burning spices to please the queen of love, would never consent to her marriage with Leander. How could they know that it was Aphrodite herself who had made their daughter fall so deeply in love with the youth from Abydos? Still, the maiden longed so greatly to see Leander again, to hold his hand and to hear his voice, that she consented to his plan. They parted with many kisses, and Hero promised that the following evening she would set a light in the window of her tower to guide Leander as he swam to visit her across the Hellespont.
All next day, in the temple, Hero thought of her lover and was full of joy as she walked down to her tower by the sea. When the sun had set and the dark sky was studded with silver stars, she looped back the curtain from the casement and set her golden lamp upon the sill. Then she and the old nurse moved their spinning wheel into the window, drew the thread from the distaff, and told each other that soon Leander would come.
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On the farther shore, where the rocks stood dark and lonely, Leander was preparing for his long swim. He took off his rich robes and laid them where he could find them in the morning. Then, looking up into the sky, he saw the gleaming crescent moon that was the crown of Artemis herself. So, with a whispered word of homage to all the Shining People of the Mountain, he lifted his arms high above his head and dived, straight as an arrow, into the water.
The hours passed as he swam, and, all the time, Hero watched for him from her tower. At last, lifting his head as high as he could above the waves, he saw her light. With a cry of gladness, which only the sea nymphs heard, he raised an arm and waved it in the air. Hero saw it, ran down the long staircase of the tower, and sped, fleet as a little fawn, to the dark beach. Leander called to her from the waves, close to shore, and she would have run straight into the water to meet him if the old nurse had not held her back.
They had brought a beautiful dry robe for Leander, gleaming with bright embroidery, and soft and warm as silky wool. How Hero laughed, and clapped her hands, and sang for joy, as Leander shook the water from his eyes and hair. Then they went back to the tower, and the kind old nurse set fruits and cakes and wine before them, and they talked about their love for each other until the morning.
When the sky was rosy with dawn, Leander said he must return to Abydos. So Hero and the nurse once more went down to the beach and watched him plunge into the sea. Then they took the embroidered robe back to the tower and hung it up, and Hero kissed it as they did so, for had it not been worn by Leander?
So, each night, Leander swam twice across the Hellespont, for love of beautiful Hero in her lonely tower.
But at last the summer, with its soft breezes, and calm seas, and silver moons, passed into autumn and winter, and the winds grew harsh and cold, and heavy clouds hung their long strands in the dreary sky. Leander found it more and more difficult to swim through the rough water, and on some nights he was obliged to stay away from Hero altogether.
Then a fiercer storm than ever arose and raged for many days. Hero, sobbing, would set her light in the window; Leander, brave, yet almost hopeless, would dive into the sea, only to be beaten back to land. But, after a whole week of absence, he felt that, come what might, he must see Hero again, hold her hand, and hear her voice. With reckless courage, he sprang into the wild water and fought his way through the waves until he was within sight of the shining lamp in the window. Then his strength failed him, and, calling aloud to Hero, he sank under the raging foam.
Hero had watched for so many nights that, overcome with weariness, she had fallen asleep. Suddenly she awoke with a start and told her old nurse that she had dreamed she saw a dead dolphin thrown up by the sea upon the shore. The dream frightened her; and, hastily wrapping herself in a cloak, she ran down to the beach, and stood at the edge of the angry, tossing Hellespont.
As she stood there, she heard the sad crying of the halcyons, the wild seabirds who live in the furrows of the waves. Straining her eyes, she saw something in the spray that looked like Leander’s form. With a low cry, Hero sprang into the water and tried to reach him. At last, she caught his cold hands in hers and threw her arms about him, and then she knew that he was drowned. Even while she strained him to her the sea drew her down, also, and her loving spirit left her body. The Shining People took it, together with the soul of Leander, to a beautiful place called the Elysian Fields, where the sun shines always and winter never comes at all.
There, in green meadows, Hero and Leander still tell each other of their love, among lilies that are as white as the sea spray itself, while the gentle sounds of warm rivers fill the calm air and make them forget the raging of the cold and cruel sea.