15. BOOK XV.
Argo in ambush--Medea goes to Iolchos, and by her wiles brings Pelias to his death.
BUT on the morrow's morn the Minyæ
Turned'Argo's head once more to Thessaly
And surely now the steersman knew his way,
As island after island every day
They coasted, with a soft land-wind abeam;
And now at last like to a troubled dream
Seemed all the strange things they had seen erewhile,
Now when they knew the very green sea's smile
Beneath the rising and the setting sun,
And their return they surely now had won
To those familiar things long left behind,
When on their sails hard drave the western wind.
So past Eubœa
did they run apace,
And swept with oars the perilous green race
Betwixt Cerinthus and the islands white;
But, when they now had doubled that' dread height,
The shields that glittered upon Argo's side
They drew inboard, and made a shift to hide
Her golden eye and gleaming braveries,
And heaped the deck with bales of merchandise,
And on their yards sails patched and brown they bent,
And crawling slowly, with six oars they went,
Grown old and leaky, on the water wan.
Now at the entering of their own green bay
There lies an island that men call to-day
Green Cicynethus, low, and covered o'er
With close-set trees, and distant from the shore
But some five furlongs, and a shallow sea
'Twixt main and island ripples languidly,
And on the shore there dwells not any man
For many a mile; so there Erginus
Argo disguised, and steering skilfully,
Cast anchor with the island on his lee;
Hid from the straits, and there struck sail and mast;
Then to the island shore the heroes passed,
And with their wide war-axes 'gan to lop
Full many a sapling with green-waving top
And full-leaved boughs of spreading maple-trees,
And covered Argo's seaward side with these.
And then the shipmen did Medea bid
To hold a shallop ready, while she hid
Her lovely body in a rough grey gown
And heavy home-spun mantle coarse and brown,
And round about her a great wallet slung,
And to her neck an uncouth image hung
THEN, all being ready, to the prince she said :
O well-beloved, amongst our foes I go
Alone and weak, nor do I surely know
If I shall live or die there; but do thou
Let one watch ever, who from off the prow
Shall look towards white Iolchos o'er the bay,
And watching, wait until the seventh day,
And if no sign thou hast from me by then,
Believe me slain at hands of wicked men,
Or shut in some dark prison at the least,
While o'er my head thy foe holds royal feast.
Then soothly if it lieth in thine heart
To leave this land untouched, do thou thy part;
Yet do I think thou wilt be man enow
Unto the white-walled town to turn thy prow,
And either die a man or live a king,
Honoured of all, nor lacking anything
But me thy love; whom thou wilt soon forget,
When with thy tears my lone tomb has been wet
A little space; so be it, do thy will.
And of all good things mayst thou have thy fill
Before thou comest to the shadowy land
Where thou wilt strive once more to touch mine hand,
And have no power e’en to meet these eyesd
That for thy love shall see such miseries.
She ceased, nigh weeping, but he wept indeed,
Such tears as come to men in utmost need,
When all words fail them, and the world seems gone,
And with their love they fill the earth alone,
Careless of shame, and not remembering death.
But she clung round about him, with her breath
Shortened with sobs, as she began to say:
Weep not, O love, for surely many a day
May we be merry and forget all ill,
Nor have I yet forgotten all my skill,
And ere the days are gone thou well mayst see
Thy deadly foe brought unto nought by me.
And if indeed the Gods give me the day,
Then shall thy wakeful watch see o'er the bay
Smoke in the day-time, red flame in the night,
Rise o'er Iolchos' well-built walls and white;
Then linger not, but run out every oar,
And hasten toward the many-peopled shore
That is thine own thenceforth, as I am thine.
Therewith from him she turned her face divine,
And reached the shallop over Argo's side,
That o'er the shallows soon began to glide,
But when the keel dragged on the rank sea-grass,
She stepped ashore, and back the hero turned
Unto his fellows, who, with hearts that burned
Unto the quays
to bring great Argo's stem,
And gain the glory that was waiting them,
Watched ever for the sign across the bay,
Till nigh the dawning of the seventh day.
BUT from the shore unto a thick-leaved wood
Medea turned, drawing both cloak and hood
Right close about her, lest perchance some man,
Some hind, or fisher of the water wan,
Should wonder at her visage, that indeed
Seemed little worthy of that wretched weed.
In that thick wood a little stream there was,
That here was well-nigh hidden of the grass,
And there swelled into pools both clear and deep,
Wherein the images of trees did sleep,
For it was noontide of the summer day.
To such a pool Medea took her way,
And reaching it, upon the grass laid down
Her rough grey homespun cloak and wallet brown;
And when her eyes had swept the space around,
Undid her tunic, that upon the ground
Fell huddled round her feet; nor did she spare
To strip the linen from her body fair,
And shoes from off her feet; then she drew near
The flowery edges of the streamlet clear,
And gazing down upon her image, stood,
And since the wind was hushed that noon of day,
And moveless down her back the long locks lay,
Her very self an image seemed to be,
Wrought in some wondrous faint-hued ivory,
Carved by a master among cunning men.
So still she stood, that the quickwater-hen
Noted her not, as through the blue mouse-ear
He made his way; the conies drew anear,
Nibbling the grass, and from an oak-twig nigh
A thrush poured forth his song unceasingly.
But in a while, sighing, she turned away,
And, going up to where the wallet lay,
She opened it, and thence a phial
That seemed to be well wrought of crystal blue,
Which when she had unstopped, therefrom she poured
Into the hollow of an Indian gourd
A pale green liquor, wherefrom there arose
Such scent as o'er some poisonous valley blows,
Where nought but dull-scaled twining serpents dwell,
Nor any more now could the Colchian smell
The water-mint, the pine-trees, or the flower
Of the heaped-up sweet odorous virgin's bower.
BUT shuddering, and with lips grown pale and wan,
She took the gourd, and with shut eyes began
Therefrom her body to anoint all o'er;
And this being done, she turned not any more
Unto the woodland brook, but hurrying,
Drew on her raiment, and made haste to sling
Her wallet round about her, nor forgot
The Tauric image, ere the lovely spot
She left unto the rabbit and the roe.
AND now straight toward Iolchos did she go,
But as she went, a hideous, fearful change
Had come on her; from sunken eyes and strange
She gazed around; white grew her golden hair,
And seventy years her body seemed to bear;
As though the world that coppice
had passed by
For half an age, and caught her presently,
When from its borders once her foot had passed.
Then she began to murmur, as she cast
From changed eyes glances on her wrinkled hands:
O Jason! surely not for many lands,
Rich and gold-bearing lands, would I do this;
But yet with thee to gain good peace and bliss
Far greater things would I have done to-day.
So saying, she made haste upon her way,
Until at last, when it was well-nigh night,
She reached the city walled and towered with white,
And passing by the brazen gates of it,
Forewearied, by the fountain did she sit;
Where, as she waited, came an ancient crone,
Who, groaning, set her pitcher on the stone,
And seeing the Colchian, asked her what she was.
Mother, Medea said, I strive to pass
Unto fair Athens, where dwelt long ago
My fathers, if perchance folk yet may know
Where they lie buried, that on that same stone
I may lie down and die; a hapless one,
Whom folk once called Aglaia
, once called fair;
For years, long years agone, my golden hair
Went down the wind, as carelessly I strayed
Along the wet sea-beach, of nought afraid,
And there my joy was ended suddenly,
For on me fell the rovers of the sea,
And bore me bound into the land of Thrace
And thence to some unnamed, far northern place,
Where I, a rich man’s daughter, learned to bear
Fetters and toil and scourging year by year;
Till it has happed unto me at the last,
Now that my strength for toil is overpast,
That I am free once more, if that be aught,
Whom in all wretched places death has sought,
And surely now will find. But wilt thou give
Some resting-place to me, that I may live
Until I come to Athens and my grave ?
And certainly, though nought of gold I have,
In the far northland did I gather lore
Of this and that amid my labour sore;
And chiefly of this Goddess rites I know,
Whose image round my neck thou seest now,
; and a whispered word
Within her inmost temple once I heard
Concerning this: how men may grow to be
E'en as the Gods, and gain eternity,
And how the work of years may be undone.
When she had finished, the Thessalian crone,
Filling her jar. with water, turned and said:
Surely Athenian, I am-sore afraid,
Ere thou hast learned thy lesson utterly,
And gained that new life, thou thyself wilt die;
Nor will it profit me, who am a slave
Wishing for death, a wretched life to save:
But hearken now, if thou art wise and bold,
Then will I show thee how thou mayst earn gold
And thanks enow, by telling this thy tale
Unto rich folk, for them will it avail
To know thy secret; rise, and come with me,
And the king's daughters surely shalt thou see;
For on my road from nothing unto hell
His palace is the last lodge where I dwell,
And I am well aweary of it now,
And of my toil, thanked with hard word and blow.
I thank thee, mother, said the Colchian maid,
Nor of kings' daughters shall I be afraid,
Whose ears Latona's
daughters erst have heard,
Nor trembled at the heavy dreadful word.
THEN on they passed, and as they went, the crone
Told her how Aeson
unto death was done,
And of the news that thither had been brought
Of those that o'er the sea that glory sought.
Namely, that when Aeetes
had been fain
To trap the Argo, all had been in vain,
Yet had he gone back well-nigh satisfied;
For in the night to him a voice had cried
Louder and clearer than a mortal can:
Go back to Aea
, sun-begotten man,
And there forget thy daughter and thy FIeece;
But yet be merry, for the thieves of Greece
Shall live no longer than a poor wretch may
Wounded, possessing nought but many woes,
Lo, thus it happeneth now unto thy foes !
This, said the crone
, a Colchian man had told
, dweller in the house of gold,
And had large gifts from him; who when he knew
The certainty of this, old Aeson slew
With all his house who at Iolchos were.
So, said she, if, for quieting his fear
Of the sea-rover, such things he did give,
What would his gifts be if thou mad'st him live
His life again, with none of all his name
Alive, to give him fear of death or shame ?
WITH that they came unto the royal house
Where Pelias dwelt, grown old and timorous,
Oppressed with blood of those that he had slain,
Desiring wealth and longer life in vain.
So there a court low-built the old crone sought,
And to her lodging the tired Colchian brought,
Where she might sleep, and gave her food and drink.
Then into sleep did wise Medea sink,
And dreamed that she herself, made ever young,
Gold-robed within some peaceful garden sung,
But as she walked between the smooth-stemmed trees
She saw the sea rise o'er the marble wall,
And rolling o'er, drown grass and flowers and all,
And draw on towards her, who no whit could move,
Though from the high land Jason, her own love,
Was shouting out to her, so then, at last,
She dreamed the waters over all had passed
And reached her feet, and o'er her coldly swept,
And still undrowned, beneath the waves she wept,
And still was Jason shouting to her there.
Therewith she woke, and felt the morning air
Cold on her face, because the ancient crone
Over her couch the casement had undone.
And as she oped her eyes, she heard her say:
Awake, O guest, for yet. another day
We twain must bear before we gain our rest.
But now indeed I think it to be best
That to my ladies I alone should show
That prayers, and rites, and wonders thou dost know,
Which thou wilt tell for gold; for sure I deem
That to us dying folk nought good doth seem,
But hoarding for the years we shall riot see.
So bide thou there, and I will come to thee
And bring thee word of what the queens may say.
Then with these words she went upon her way,
While in her place alone Medea sat,
With eager heart, thinking of this and that,
And wishing that the glorious day were come,
When she should set her love within his home,
A king once more. So 'mid these thoughts, there came
Back to the place the wise Thessalian dame,
Who bade her rise and after her to go,
That she those marvels to the queens might show.
THEREWITH she brought her to a chamber where
Abode the royal maidens slim and fair,
All doing well-remembered works; of whom
sat before the loom,
Casting the shuttle swift from hand to hand.
The while Eradne's part it was to stand
Amongst the maids who carded out the wool
And filled the gleaming ivory shuttles full
Bent o'er the spinners of the milk~white thread,
And by the growing web still set aside
The many-coloured bundles newly dyed,
Blood-red, and heavenly blue, and grassy green,
Yea, and more colours than man yet has seen
In flowery meadows midmost of the May.
Then to the royal maids the crone 'gan say:
Behold the woman, O my mistresses,
Who 'midst the close-set gloomy northern trees
Has late learned that I told you of; and ye
Who in this royal house live happily,
May well desire such life for evermore,
Which unto me were but a burden sore.
Therewith she left them, but folk say, indeed,
That she who spoke was nought but Saturn's
In very likeness of that woman old,
Whose body soon folk came on, dead and cold,
Within the place where she was wont to dwell.
Now how these things may be, I cannot tell,
But certainly Queen Juno's
will was good
To finish that which, in the oaken wood
Giving good heart to the strange-nurtured man.
BUT, she being gone, fair-limbed Amphinome
Said: Reverend mother, welcome here ye be.
And in return for thy so hard-earned lore
That thou wilt teach us, surely never-more
Shall thou do labour whiles thou dwellest here,
But unto us shalt thou be lief and dear
As though thou wert the best of all our blood.
But, pondering awhile, Medea stood,
Then answered: Lady, I am now grown old,
And but small gift to me were heaps of gold,
Or rest itself, for that the tomb shall give;
I say all things are nought, unless I live
So long henceforward, that I need not think
When into nothing I at last must sink;
But take me now unto the mighty king
That rules this land, and there by everything
That he holds sacred, let him swear to me
That I shall live in peace and liberty
Till quiet death upon my head is brought;
But this great oath being made, things shall be wrought
By me, that never can be paid with gold;
For I will make that young which is grown old,
And that alive that ye have seen lie dead.
THEN much they wondered at the words she said,
And from th'e loom did fair Alcestis rise,
And tall Amphinome withdrew her eyes
From the fair spinners, and Eradne left
The carding of the fine wool for the weft.
Then said Eradne: Mother, fear not thou,
Surely our father is good man enow,
And will not harm thee: natheless, he will swear
By whatsoever thing he holdeth dear,
Nor needst thou have a doubt of him at all.
Come, for he sitteth now within the hall.
WITH that, she took her shoes from off the ground,
And round her feet the golden strings she bound,
As did her sisters, and fair cloaks they threw
About them, and their royal raiment drew
Through golden girdles, gemmed and richly wrought,
And forth with them the Colchian maid they brought.
But as unto the royal hall they turned,
Within their hearts such hot desire burned
For lengthening out the life they knew so sweet,
That scarce they felt the ground beneath their feet,
And through the marble court long seemed the way.
BUT when they reached the place, glittering and gay
With all the slain man's goods, and saw the king
Wearing his royal crown and mystic ring,
And clad in purple, and his wearied face,
Anxious and cruel, gaze from Aeson's place,
A little thing it seemed to slay him there,
As one might slay the lion in his lair,
Bestrewn with bones of beast, and man, and maid.
Then as he turned to them, Alcestis said:
O lord and father, here we bring to thee
A wise old woman, come from over sea,
Who 'mid the gloomy, close-set northern trees
Has heard the words of reverend Goddesses
I dare not name aloud; therefore she knows
Why this thing perishes, and that thing grows,
And what to unborn creatures must befall,
And this, the very chiefest thing of all,
To make the old man live his life again,
And all the lapse of years but nought and vain:
But we, when these strange things of her we heard,
Trembled before her, and were sore afeard,
In midst of all our measureless desire
Within thy veins and ours to set new fire,
And with thee live for many a happy day,
Whilst all about us passes soon away.
NOW paler grew the king's face as they spake,
And 'mid strange hopes his heart began to quake,
As sighing, he fell on thought of other days
Now long gone by, when he was winning praise:
He thinketh: If indeed I might not die,
Then would I lay aside all treachery,
And here should all folk live without alarm,
For to no man would I do any harm,
Whatso might hap, but I would bring again
The golden age, free from all fear and pain.
But through his heart there shot a pang of fear,
As to the queen he said: Why art thou here,
Since thou hast mastered this all-saving art,
Keeping but vagant life for thine own part
Of what thou boastest with the Gods to share?
Thou, but a dying woman, nowise fair.
Pelias, she said, far from the north I come,
Where being alone, upon a luckless day,
By the sea-rovers was I snatched away,
And in their long-ship, with bound, helpless hands,
Was brought to Thrace
, and thence to northern lands,
Of one of which I scarcely know the name,
Nor could your tongue the uncouth letters frame.
There had I savage masters, and must learn
With aching back to bend above the quern
There must I learn how the poor craftsman weaves,
Nor earn his wages; and the barley-sheaves
Must bind in August; and across the snow,
Unto the frozen river must I go,
When the white winter lay upon the land,
And therewithal must I dread many a hand,
And writhe beneath the whistle of the whip.
Mid toils like these my youth from me did slip,
Uncomforted, through lapse of wretched years,
Till I forgot the use of sobs and tears,
And like a corpse about my labour went,
Grown old before my time, and worn and bent.
And then at last this good to me betid
That my wise mistress strove to know things hid
From mortal men, and doubted all the rest,
B'abblers and young, who in our fox's nest
Dwelt through the hideous changes of the year:
Then me she used to help her, and so dear
I grew, that when upon her tasks she went,
Into all dangerous service was I sent;
And many a time, within the woods alone,
Have I sat watching o'er the heaps of stone
Where dwell the giants dead; and many a time
Have my pale lips uttered the impious rhyme
That calls the dead from their unchanged abode;
Till on my soul there .lay a heavy load
Of knowledge, not without reward, for I
No longer went in rags and misery,
But in such bravery as there they had
My toil-worn body now was fairly clad,
And feared by man and maid did I become,
And mistress of my mistress' dreary home.
Moreover, whether that, being dead to fear,
All things I noted, or that somewhat dear
I now was grown to those dread Goddesses,
I know not; yet amidst the haunted trees
More things I learned than my old mistress did,
Yea, some things surely from all folk else hid,
Whose names once spoken would unroof this hall,
And lay Iolchos underneath a pall
Of quick destruction; and when these were learned,
At last my mistress all her wage had earned,
And to the world was dead for evermore.
But me indeed the whole house hated sore,
First for my knowledge, next that, sooth to say,
I, when I well had passed my evil day,
And came to rule, spared not my fellows aught;
Whereby this fate upon my head was brought,
That flee I must lest worst should hap to me;
So on my way unto the Grecian sea
With weary heart and manifold distress,
My feet at last thy royal pavement press.
My lips beseech thy help, O mighty King!
Help me, that I myself may do the thing
I most desire, and this great gift may give
To thee and thine, from this time forth to live
In youth and beauty while the world goes by
With all its vain desires and misery.
AND if thou doubtest still, then hear me say
The words thou spakest on a long-past day,
When thou wert fearful, and the half-shod man
Had come upon thee through the water wan.
SHE ceased awhile, and therewith Pelias,
With open mouth and eyes as fixed as glass,
Stared at her, wondering. Then again she said:
Awhile ago, when he thou knowest dead,
And he thou thinkest dead, were by thy side,
A crafty wile thou forgedst; at that tide
And how that Phryxus
dead at Aea was.
Thinking (and not in vain) to light the fire
Of glorious deeds, and measureless desire
Of fame within the hearts of men o'erbold.
For thus thou saidst: So is the story told
Of things that happened forty years agone,
Nor of the Greeks has there been any one
To set the bones of Phryxus in a tomb,
Or mete out to the Colchian his due doom.
So saidst thou then, and by such words didst drive
Thy nephew in a hopeless game to strive,
Wherefore thou deemest wisely he is dead,
And all the words that he can say are said.
SHE ceased again, while pale and shuddering,
Across his eyes the crafty, fearful king
Drew trembling hands. But yet again she spoke:
What if the Gods by me the strong chain broke
Of thy past deeds, ill deeds wrought not in vain,
And thou with new desires lived yet again?
Durst I still trust thee with my new-gained life?
Who for the rest am not thy brother's wife,
Thy nephew, or thy brother. Be it so.
Yet since the foolish hearts of men I know,
Swear on this image of great Artemis
That unto me thy purpose harmless is,
Nor wilt thou do me hurt, or more or less.
Then while thy lips the ivory image press,
Will I call down all terrors that I know
Upon thine head if thou shouldst break thy vow.
Yet for thyself dost thou trust what I say,
Or wilt thou still be dying day by day?
Yea, said the king; yea, whosoe'er thou art,
Needs must I trust thee, in such wise my heart
Desireth life again when this is done.
Give me the image, O thou fearful one,
Who knowest all my life, who in the breath
Wherein thou prayest help still threatenest death.
Then on the image did she swear the king,
But while he spoke was she still muttering,
With glittering eyes fixed on him; but at last,
When from from his lips the dreadful word had passed,
She said: O King, pray that thou mayst not die
Before the fifth day's sun has risen on high;
Yet on to-morrow morn shall thou behold
This hair of mine all glittering bright as gold,
My tottering feet firm planted on the ground,
My grey and shrivelled arms grown white and round,
A snare of beauty to a very God,
To young men's eyes a fierce consuming fire.
So saying, did she kindle fresh desire
In the king's fainting heart, until he thought:
Nay, if new life hereby to me is brought,
Withal there may be brought a lovely mate
To share my happy days and scorn of fate.
Then did he bid his daughters straight to go
With that wise woman, nor spare aught to do
That she might bid them, and they wondering,
But in their hearts yet fearful of the thing,
Unto the women's chamber led her back,
And bade her say what matters she might lack.
Then little did she ask unto her need,
But fair cold water, and some fitting weed,
And in a close-shut place to be alone,
Because no eye must see the wonder done.
And Oh, she said, fair women, haste ye now,
For surely weaker every hour I grow,
And fear to die ere I can live again.
Then through the house they hastened, and with pain
A brazen caldron their fair hands bore up,
As well wrought over as a king's gold cup.
Which in a well-hung chamber did they set,
And filled with clear cold water, adding yet
New raiment wrought about with ruddy gold,
And snowy linen wrapped in many a fold.
Then did Medea turn unto the three,
And said: Farewell, for no more shall ye see
These limbs alive, or hear this feeble voice,
For either shall my changed lips rejoice
In my new beauty, or else stark and cold
This wretched body shall your eyes behold.
Wait now until six hours are over-passed,
And if ye still shall find the door shut fast,
Then let the men bring hammers, neither doubt
That thence my corpse alone shall bear out.
But if the door is open or ajar,
Draw nigh and see how great my helpers are,
And greet what there ye see with little fear,
For whatsoever may have touched me here,
By then, at least, shall no one be with me,
And nought but this old sorceress shall ye see
Grown young again; alas! grown young again!
Would God that I were past the fear and pain!
So said the Colchian; but their fearful eyes
Turned hastily from such hid mysteries
As there might lurk; and to their bower they gat,
And well-nigh silent o’er the weaving sat,
And did what things they needs must do that day,
Until that six hours’ space had passed away.
THEN had the sun set, and the whitening moon.
Shone o’er the gardens where the brown bird’s tune
Was quivering through the roses red and white,
And sweeter smelt the sweet flowers with the night;
But to the chamber where there lay alone
The wise Medea, up the faint grey stone
Two rose-trees climbed, along a trellis led,
And with their wealth of blossoms white and red
Another garden of the window made.
So now the royal sisters, sore afraid,
Each with a taper in her trembling hand,
Before the fateful chamber-door did stand
And heard no noise; whereon Amphinome
Pushed at the door that yielded, and the three
Passing with beating hearts the oaken door,
Pressed noiseless feet upon the polished floor,
Reddening the moonshine with their tapers’ light.
There they beheld the caldron gleaming bright,
And on the floor the heap of raiment rent
That erst had hid the body old and bent;
And there a crystal phial they beheld
Empty, that once some wondrous liquor held;
And by the window-side asleep they saw
The Colchian woman, white without a flaw
From head to heel; her round arms by her side,
Her fair face flushed with sweet thoughts, as a bride
Who waits the coming of some well-loved man.
Softly she breathed, the while the moonlight ran
In silver ripples o’er her hair of gold.
BUT when that loveliness they did behold,
They cried aloud for wonder, though not yet
Her happy dreaming thoughts would she forget.
But into spoken words her murmuring grew,
Though of their purport nought the sisters knew,
Since in the outland Colchian tongue she spoke;
Then, while they waited, slowly she awoke,
And looking round her, still with half-shut eyes,
She said: O damsels, fain would I arise,
I hear the morning murmur of the birds
And lowing of released and hungry herds
Across the meadows, sweet with vetch
And the faint ripple of the Phasis
But with that last word did she start upright,
Shading her grey eyes from the tapers’ light,
And said: O queens, and are ye come to me
This eve, my triumph over time to see?
And is my boast for nought? Behold me made
Like the fair casket-bearer who betrayed
The luckless man while yet the world was young.
So saying did she speak as one who sung,
So sweet her voice was; then she stepped adown
From off the silken couch, and rough and brown
They seemed beside her, fair maids though they were.
But silently they stood, and wondered there,
And from their hearts had flown all thoughts at last
But that of living while the world went past.
Then at her feet Alcestis knelt and prayed:
O, who can see thee, Goddess, unafraid?
Yet thou thyself hast promised life to us,
More than man’s feeble life, and perilous,
And if thy promise now thou makest vain,
How can we live our thoughtless life again?
Then, would thou ne’er hadst left thine heavenly home,
And o’er the green Thessalian meadows come!
THEN spoke Medea: But a few days yet
And all eld’s fears your father shall forget;
And when that he has gained his just reward,
Your lives from death and danger will I guard.
Natheless no Goddess am I, but no more
Than a poor wanderer on from shore to shore,
Though loved by her the swift of Goddesses,
Who now is glancing ‘twixt the dark grey trees,
E’en while we speak. Now leave me to my rest,
For this new-changed body is oppressed
By all the thoughts that round my heart will throng
Of ancient days, and hopes forgotten long:
Go therefore now, but come back with the sun
To do my bidding; then shall there be done
Another marvel ere the morn comes round,
If ye three be dwelling above ground.
THEN, trembling, they unto their chamber passed,
But, they being gone, she made the strong door fast,
And soon in deep sleep on the couch she lay
Until the golden sun brought back the day;
Nor could she fail, arising, to be glad
That once again her own fair form she had,
And as the fresh air met her pleasantly,
She smiled, her image in the bath to see
That had been lost since at the noon she stood
Beside the still pool in the lonely wood;
And she rejoiced her combed-out hair to bind,
And feel the linen in the morning wind
Fluttering about in kissing side and limb,
And it was sweet about her ankles slim
To make the gemmed thongs of the sandals meet,
With rosy fingers touching her soft feet.
BUT she being clad, there came the ladies three,
Who seemed by her but handmaidens to be;
And such indeed they were, as dumb with awe
In the fresh morn that loveliness they saw.
Then said Medea: Hail Thessalians, hail!
Surely to-day your prayer shall nowise fail,
For I am fain to do the whole world good.
But now take heed: is there some close dark wood
Anigh the town? thither will we to-night,
And in that place, hidden from all men’s sight,
Shall ye see wonders passing human thought.
But thither, by your hands there must be brought
Some ancient beast at very point to die,
That ye may see how loved an one am I
By dreadful Gods; there, too, before the eve
A mighty brazen caldron must ye leave,
And nigh the place there must not fail to be
Some running stream to help our mystery.
Moreover She, the helpful and the kind,
Whose name I name not, willeth not to find
The robes of kings and queens upon her slaves;
Therefore, if ye would please the one who saves,
This night must ye be clad in smocks of black,
And all adornment must your bodies lack,
Nor must there be a fillet on your hair,
And the hard road must feel your feet all bare.
Lady, Eradne said, all shall be done
Nor wilt thou yet have had beneath the sun
More faithful servants than we are to thee;
But wilt thou not the king my father see,
And gladden him, that he may give thee things.
Such as the heart desires, the spoil of kings?
Nay, said Medea, much have I to think
Ere the hot sun beneath the sea shall sink,
And much to call to mind, and for your sake
Unto my Helper many a prayer to make.
WITH that they went, and she, being left alone,
Took up the image of the Swift-foot One,
Which for a hidden casket served her well,
And wherein things were laid right strange to tell,
Divers whereof she handled, and the while
She muttered charms learned in the river-isle.
But at the noontide did they bring her food,
Saying that all was ready in the wood,
And that the night alone they waited now,
Ere unto them those marvels she might show.
Therefore Medea bade them come again
When all the house of peaceful sleep was fain,
And nought was stirring: so at dead of night
They came to her in black apparel dight,
Bearing like raiment for the Colchian,
Who did it on before their faces wan
And troubled eyes; then out of gates they stole,
Setting their faces to the wished-for goal.
NOW nigh Anaurus
a blind pathway leads
Betwixt the yellow corn and whispering reeds,
The home of many a shy quick-diving bird;
Thereby they passed, and as they went they heard
Splashing of fish, and ripple of the stream;
And once they saw across the water’s gleam
The black boat of some fisher of the night,
And from the stream had drawn back in affright
But that the Colchian whispered: Wise be ye,
Thessalian sisters, yet with certainty
Make onward to the wood, for who indeed,
Beholding our pale faces and black weed,
Would come the nigher to us? Would not he
Think that some dread things we must surely be,
And tremble till we passed? Haste, for the night
Is young no more, and danger comes with light.
Then on they passed, and soon they reached the wood,
And straight made for the midst of it, where stood
An old horned ram bound fast unto a tree,
Which the torch-bearer, tall Amphinome,
Showed to Medea, and not far therefrom
Unto a brazen caldron did they come,
Hidden with green boughs; then Medea bade
That by their hands a high pile should be made
Of fallen wood, and all else fit to burn;
Which done, unto the caldron did they turn
And bore it to the river, and did strain
Their fair round arms to bear it back again
When it was filled, and raised it on the pile;
And then with hands unused to service vile
Lit up the fire, the while Medea took
Dried herbs from out her wallet, which she shook
Into the caldron; till at last a cloud
Rose up therefrom and the dark trees did shroud.
Then did she bid them the old ram to lead
Up to the caldron’s side, and with good heed
To quench his just departing feeble life;
So in his throat Eradne thrust the knife,
While in the white arms of Amphinome
Feebly he struggled; so being slain at last,
Piecemeal his members did the sisters cast
Into the seething water; then drew back
And hid their faces in their raiment black,
The while Medea midst the flickering light
Still sprinkled herbs from out her fingers white,
And in a steady voice at last did say:
O THOU that turnest night into the day,
O thou the quencher of unhallowed fire,
The scourge of hot, inordinate desire,
That wrong may still be wrong, and right be right
In all men’s eyes? A little thing I ask
Before I put an ending to my task.
Scarce had she finished, ere a low black cloud
Seemed closing o’er the forest, and aloud
Medea cried: Oh strong and terrible!
I fear thee not, do what may please thee well.
THEN as the pale Thessalians with affright
Crouched on the earth, forth leapt the lightning white
Over their shrinking heads, and therewithal
The thunder crashed, and down the rain did fall,
As though some angry deity were fain
To make a pool of that Thessalian plain.
Till in a while it ceased, and all was stilled
Except the murmur of some brook new-filled,
And dripping of the thick-leafed forest trees
As they moved gently in the following breeze.
Yet still King Pelias’
daughters feared to rise,
And with wet raiment still they hid their eyes,
And trembled, and white-armed Amphinome
Had dropped the long torch of the resin-tree,
That lay half-charred among the tall wet grass.
But unto them did wise Medea pass,
And said: O, daughters of the sea-born man,
Rise up, for now the stars are growing wan,
And the grey dawn is drawing near apace;
Nor need ye fear to see another face
Than this of mine, and all our work is done
We came to do.
Then slowly, one by one,
The sisters rose, and, fearful, drew anigh
The place where they had seen the old ram die;
And there beheld, by glimmering twilight grey,
Where on its side the brazen caldron lay,
And on the grass and flowers that hid the ground,
Half-charred extinguished brands lay all around,
But yet no token of the beast was there;
But ‘mid the brands a lamb lay, white and fair,
That now would raise his new-born head and bleat,
And now would lick the Colchian’s naked feet,
As close he nestled to her: then the three
Drew nigh unto that marvel timidly,
And gazed at him with wide eyes wondering.
Thereat Medea raised the new-changed thing
In her white arms, and smiled as one who knew,
And said: Now see ye what the Gods will do
For earthly men! Take ye this new-born beast,
And hope to sit long ages at the feast,
And this your youth and loveliness to keep
When all that ye have known are laid asleep.
Yet steel your hearts to do a fearful thing,
Ere this can happen; for unto the king
Your hands must do what they have done to-night
To this same beast. And now, to work aright
What yet is needful to this mystery,
Will be four days’ full heavy toil for me.
Take heed that silence, too, on this ye keep,
Or else a bitter harvest shall ye reap.
So said she, willing well indeed to know,
Before the promised sign she dared to show,
What honour Pelias in Iolchos had,
And if his death should make his people sad.
BUT now they turned back on their homeward way,
Fleeing before the coming of the day;
Nor yet the flinty way their feet did feel,
Nor their wet limbs the wind, that ‘gan to steal
From out the north-west ere the sun did rise.
And swiftly though they went, yet did their eyes
Behold no more than eyes of those that dream
The crumbling edges of the swirling stream,
Or fallen tree-trunks, or the fallow rough.
sent them feeling just enough
By the lone ways to come unto the town
And fair-walled palace, and to lay them down
Upon their fragrant beds, that stood forlorn
Of their white bodies, waiting for the morn
In chambers close-shut from the dying night.
BUT since Medea fain would know aright
What the folk willed to Pelias in the town,
Early next day she did on her the brown
And ragged raiment, and the sisters told
That she must find the place where herbs were sold,
And there buy this and that; therewith she went
About the town, seeming crook-back’d and bent;
And, hidden in her mantle and great hood,
Within the crowded market-place she stood,
And marked the talk of all the busy folk,
And ever found that under Pelias’ yoke
All people groaned: and therefore with good heart
She set herself to work out all her part.
For, going back, till the fifth day was gone
She dwelt within her chamber all alone,
Except that now and then the sisters came
To bring her food; and whiles they saw a flame,
Strange-coloured, burning on the heath, while she
Was bending o’er it, muttering wearily,
And whiles they saw her bent o’er parchment strange,
And letters that they knew not; but no change
They ever saw upon her lovely face.
BUT at the last, she, mindful of the place
Where lay fair Argo’s glorious battered keel,
And that dread hidden forest of bright steel,
Said to Eradne, when her food she brought
Upon the sixth morn: Sister, I have thought
How best to carry out the mystery
That is so dear at heart to thee and me,
And find that this night must the thing be done;
So seek a place where we may be alone,
High up, and looking southward o’er the bay,
Thither ere midnight must ye steal away,
And under a huge caldron set dry brands.
And that being done, take sharp swords in your hands,
And while I watch the sea and earth and air,
Go ye to Pelias’ well-hung chamber fair;
Therein your deed ye may most surely do,
If ye will work the way I counsel you.
Therewith a phial in her hand she set,
And said: Who tasteth this will soon forget
Both life and death, and for no noise will wake
In two days’ space; therefore this phial take,
And with the king’s drink see ye mingle it,
As well ye may, and let his servants sit
O’er wine so honied at the feast to-night.
shall their sleep not be so light,
That bare feet pattering quick across the floor,
Or unused creaking of an open door,
Shall rouse them; though no deadly drug it is,
But bringer of kind sleep and dreamy bliss.
But now, what think’st thou? Are your hearts so good,
That ye will dare to shed your father’s blood
That he may live for ever? then is he
The luckiest of all men. Or else if ye
Draw back now after all my prayers and tears,
Then were it best that ye should end your fears
By burning me with quick fire ere to-night.
And yet not thus should ye lead lives aright,
And free from fear; because the sandaled queen
Doth ever keep a memory fresh and green
For all her faithful servants: ye did see
Late in the green-wood how she loveth me.
Therefore be wise, and when to-night ye draw
The sharp-edged steel, glittering without a flaw,
Cast fear and pity from you. Pity him
I bid you rather, who, with shrunken limb
And sunken eyes, remembers well the days
When in the ranks of war he garnered praise,
Which unarmed, feeble, as his last year ends,
Babbling amongst the elders now he spends.
Such shall not Pelias be, but rather now
The breath of new days past misdeeds shall blow
Adown the wind, and, taught by his old life,
Shall he live honoured, free from fear or strife.
Fear not, Eradne said, our will to-night,
For all thy bidding will we do outright,
Since still a Goddess thou dost seem to be
To us poor strugglers with mortality.
And for the secret spot this night we need,
Close to the sea a place. I know indeed,
Upon the outskirts of this palace fair;
And on this night of all nights, close by there
My father sleeps, as oft his custom is,
When he is fain a Mysian
girl to kiss,
Sea-rovers sold to him three months agone.
There after midnight we shall be alone
Beyond all doubt; for this sea-watching wall
Was once the wind-swept and deep-hallowed hall
Of some strange God whose name is clean forgot,
And, as folk think, ill spirits haunt the spot:
So all men fear it sore; but fear indeed
Is dead within us since the way ye lead.
She ceased, and from the Colchian won much praise,
And promises of many happy days.
Then as upon the door she laid her hand,
Medea said: When midnight hides the land,
Come here to me, and bring me to that place;
Then look the last upon your father’s face
As ye have known it for these eighteen years,
Furrowed by eld and drawn by many fears;
But when ye come, in such gear be ye clad
As in the wood that other night ye had.
Then did Eradne leave her, and the day
Through sunshine and through shadow passed away.
BUT with the midnight came the sisters three,
To lead her to that temple by the sea,
And in black raiment had they hurried there,
With naked feet, and unadorned loose hair,
E’en as that other night they sped the work;
But in each bosom hidden now did lurk
The trenchant steel wherewith to do the deed.
Of these Alcestis trembled like the reed
Set midmost of some quickly running stream,
But with strange fire Eradne’s eyes did gleam,
And a bright flush was burning on her cheek,
As still her fingers the sharp steel did seek;
While tall Amphinome, grown pale and white
Beyond all measure, gazed into the night
With steady eyes, as with the queen they went
To that lone place to work out their intent.
SO when all courts and corridors were passed,
Unto the ancient fane they came at last,
And found it twofold; for below there stood
Square marble pillars, huge, and red as blood,
And wrought all o’er with fretting varying much;
Heavy they were, and nowise like to such
As men built in the lands Medea knew,
Or in the countries fate had led her through:
But they, set close and thick, aloft did hold
A well-wrought roof, where yet gleamed scraps of gold,
That once told tales of Gods none living praise;
And on this roof some king of later days
Had built another temple long before
The Minyae came adown unto that shore
And to what Gods the victim then did bleed,
Men knew but little; but therein there rose
Fair slim white pillars set in goodly rows,
And garlanded with brazen fruit and flowers,
That gleaming once, through lapse of many hours,
Now with black spirals wrapt the pillars white.
But this fair fane was open to the night
On one side only, toward the restless sea;
And there a terrace, wrought full cunningly,
Clear of the pillars hung above the sand.
Now went those maids, groping with outstretched hand.
Betwixt the pillars of the undercroft,
Until they reached a stair that led aloft
Into the windy, long-deserted fane
Of younger days; but when their feet did gain.
The open space above the murmuring sea,
In whispers did the queens of Thessaly
Show to the Colchian where the great pile was,
Built ‘neath a vessel of bright polished brass,
And many water-jars there stood around;
And as they spoke, to them the faint low sound
Of their own whispered voices seemed as loud
As shouts that break from out the armed crowd
Of warriors ready for the fight. But she
Spoke with no lowered voice, and said: O ye!:
Be brave to-night, and thenceforth have no fear
Of God or man since ye to me are dear.
Light up the torches, for whoe’er may wake,
And note their stars the solid sea-night break.
Will think they light but ghosts of men long dead.
Then presently the pine-bough flared out red,
And lighted up the smile upon her face
And the tall pillars of the holy place,
And the three sisters gazing at her there,
Wild-looking, with the sea-wind in their hair,
And scant black raiment driven from their feet.
But when her eyes their fearful eyes did meet,
With wild appealing glances as for aid,
Some little pity touched the Colchian maid,
Some vague regret for their sad destiny.
But to herself she said: So must it be,
And to such misery shall such a king
Lead wife and child, and every living thing
That trusts him. Then she said, Leave me alone,
But ye, go do the deed that best were done
Ere any streak of dawn makes grey the sky.
And come to me when ye have seen him lie
Dead to his old life of misdeeds and woe.
THEN voiceless from the torchlight did they go
Into the darkness, and she, left alone,
Laid by the torches till the deed was done
Within the pillars, and turned back again
With eager eyes to gaze across the main,
But nothing she beheld by that starlight
But on the beach the line of breakers white,
And here and there, above the unlit grey,
Some white-topped billow dotting the dark bay.
Then, sighing, did she turn herself around
And looked down toward the plot of unused ground,
Whereby they passed into that fateful place,
And gazed thereon with steadfast wary face,
And there the pavement, whitened by the wind,
Betwixt the turf she saw, and nigh it, twined
About a marble image carelessly,
A white wild-rose, and the grey boundary
Of wind-beat stone, through whose unhinged door
Their stealthy feet had passed a while before.
Nought else she saw for a long dreary hour,
For all things lay asleep in bed or bower,
Or in the little-lighted mountain caves,
Or ‘neath the swirling streams and toppling waves.
SHE trembled then, for in the eastern sky
A change came, telling of the dawning nigh,
And with swift footsteps she began to pace
Betwixt the narrow limits of the place;
But as she turned round toward the close once more
Her eyes beheld the pavement by the door
Hid by some moving mass; then joyfully
She waved her white arms toward the murmuring sea,
And listened trembling, and although the sound
Of breakers that the sandy sea-beach ground
Was loud in the still night, yet could she hear
Sounds like the shuffling steps of those that bear
Some heavy thing, and as she gazed, could see
The thin black raiment of the sisters three
Blown out, and falling backward as they bent
Over some burden and right slowly went;
And ‘twixt their arms could she behold the gleam
Of gold or gems, or silver-broidered seam,
Till all was hidden by the undercroft.
And then she heard them struggling bear aloft
That dreadful burden, and then went to meet,
With beating heart, their slow ascending feet,
Taking a half-burnt torch within her hand.
There by its light did she behold them stand
Breathless upon the first stone of that fane,
And with no word she beckoned them again
To move on toward the terrace o’er the sea,
And, turning, went before them silently.
AND so at last the body down they laid
Close by the caldron, and Eradne said:
O thou, our life and saviour! linger not,
We pray thee now! Because our hearts are hot
To see our father look with other eyes
Upon the sea, the green earth, and the skies,
And praise us for this seeming impious deed.
Medea hearkened not; she saw the weed
Which erst she saw all glittering in the hall,
And that same mantle as a funeral pall
Which she had seen laid over either knee,
The wonder of King Aeson’s treasury,
Which wise Phoenicians for much fire-wrought gold
And many oxen, years agone had sold
To Aeson, when folk called him king and lord.
Then to the head she went, and with no word
The white embroidered linen cloth that lay
Over the dead man’s face she drew away,
As though she doubted yet what thing it was,
And saw indeed the face of Pelias.
THEN o’er her pale cheek a bright flush there came,
And, turning, did she set the torches’ flame
Unto the dry brands of the well-built pyre,
And, standing back, and waving from the fire
The shuddering girls, somewhat thereon she cast,
Like unto incense: then with furious blast
Shot up a smokeless flame into the air,
Quivering and red, nor then did she forbear
To cry aloud, in her old Colchian tongue,
Proud words, and passionate, that strangely rung
Within the poor bewildered sisters’ ears,
Filling their hearts with vague and horrid fears.
O love! she said, O love! O sweet delight!
Hast thou begun to weep for me this night,
Dost thou stretch out for me thy mighty hands…
The feared of all, the graspers of the lands?
Come then, O love! across the dark seas come,
And triumph as a king in thine own home!
While I, the doer of a happy deed,
Shall sit beside thee in this wretched weed;
That folk may know me by thine eyes alone
Still blessing me for all that I have done.
Come, king, and sit upon thy father’s seat,
Come, conquering king, thy conqueror love to meet!
BUT as she said these words the luckless three
Stared at her glowing face all helplessly,
Nor to their father’s corpse durst turn their eyes,
While in their hearts did fearful thoughts arise,
But now Medea, casting, fed the fire
With that same incense, and the flame rose higher,
A portent to the dwellers in the town,
Unto the shepherd waking on the down,
A terror telling of ill things to be.
But from the God-built tower of Thessaly,
Grey Pelion, did the centaur Chiron
And when he saw that ruddy flame outblaze
He smiled and said: So comes to pass the word
That in the forests of the north I heard,
And in such wise shall love be foiled, and hate,
And hope of gain, opposing steadfast fate.
So to the flowery eastern slopes he gat
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