Venus's Dove by Lydia Maria Child

In old heathen times, on the shore of the Adriatic lived a little girl whose greatest pleasure was to wander by the side of the lonely sea. She liked better to sit on a high rock with the spray just tossing against her feet, than to play with her village companions, who laughed at her for her wild ways, and asked her if she were the child of Neptune, and if she dwelt in a shell palace under the water; although they knew very well that old Menos, the fisherman, was her father, and that she lived in a little hut, just above the line of seaweed which the highest tides leave upon the beach.

One day Ida roamed far along the beach, amusing herself making deep footprints in the sand, which the rising tide quickly filled, when at last she came upon a high wall of rock, too steep to climb, yet looking as if a pleasant bay might be beyond. She scrambled along the rock, slippery with seaweed, until she could peep round into a great cave, before which was a little beach of smooth, white sand, with dark, frowning rocks all around, except where the sea broke gently in upon it. In the darkness of the cave an old woman leaned over a book. Its brilliant cover attracted Ida, who, half in fear, stole nearer and nearer, treading so softly in the sand that her foot-steps could not be heard, and at last seated herself in the shadow by the old woman, and listened to the wonderful stories which she read, in a low, murmuring voice.

"High upon Olympus, on his golden throne, the blue sky shines above him, and around stand the immortals;" and then, mingled with the sound of the waves, came songs from Apollo's lyre, and descriptions of Bacchus, drawn by his soft-footed leopards, of Venus and her snowy doves, of fauns and nymphs, and wondrous people, of whom Ida had never before heard. She listened until the sun set and night darkened upon the waters, then slowly retraced her way home, thinking every cloud that floated above her might be a messenger from Olympus, and that every fleck of foam was perhaps the little white hand of a nereid, sporting amid the waves.

In vain came her cousin Larra, the next morning, to ask her to go in quest of crabs and sea-urchins with the other children. Ida went off alone on another quest. The old woman sat in the cave with the morning sun glancing upon her silver hair, and upon a most beautiful picture, to which she had just turned. Now, Ida was an affectionate child. She loved her father, although she but seldom saw him, as he was out upon the sea for weeks at a time; and she loved her aunt Lydian, and her cousins, and all who were kind to her; yet she could not but see that Apollo, with his golden lyre and flashing eyes, had something more glorious in him than she had ever seen in her father, even on that day when he came smiling home, bringing the largest fish he had ever caught; and Minerva's helmet was certainly more splendid than the piece of cloth aunt Lydian wore on her head; and cupids, with fluttering wings, were much prettier than her little brown-armed cousins without any. So she forgot all her old friends, and day and night her dreams were full of lofty forms with golden hair and faces like the noonday sun.

And being an affectionate child, she liked to do something for those she loved; and she began to fancy what she could do for these unknown immortals of whom she dreamed. The old woman had retreated into the depth of the cave, whither Ida did not venture to follow her; and she would sit just within it, gazing through its dark arch upon the wide waters, and wondering if the bright sunbeams which pierced through the clouds, and slanted far down upon the distant sea, were not stairs by which she might ascend to Olympus. Then she would think of the boat her father made for her of the ivory tusks he once brought from a far-off land; of the pile of shells she had herself collected, all very valuable to her, but she doubted a little whether they would be much valued upon Olympus, and she could not go thither without some offering worthy of the immortals.

One day she found upon the shore a shell curved like a beautiful vase. "Ah, this is just the thing!" she exclaimed. "I will fill it with honey; there is nothing so delicious as honey; even the immortals must like that!" And away she went, deep into a wooded dell, where the stores of the wild bee were hidden.

How she found her way to Olympus is known only to herself. I believe she first climbed some rocks, then a cloud, then sprang over a rainbow bridge, and at last scaled a long sunbeam, which led her straight to the marble steps of Jupiter's high throne.

How joyfully she mounted! sometimes looking up to marvel at the height of the steps, which seemed to ascend into the very sky, sometimes looking down at her little shell of honey, thinking how brightly it shone, like pure gold, and how pleased Jupiter would be with it. At last she stood upon the summit of Olympus, and with timid step walked through the circle of gazing immortals, until she came before the throne of Jupiter. There she knelt to lift the shell vase and honey nectar to his sceptered hand, but trembled so much that she spilt the honey on his jewelled footstool. It seemed as if she beheld at once every face in that grand assembly. Jupiter apparently did not notice her; but Juno fixed her haughty gaze upon her, Apollo shot a glance of scorn, Minerva frowned, Venus turned away her head, Bacchus looked annoyed, Mercury smiled, and poor little Ida, covering her face with her apron, fled through the Golden Hall, and down the marble steps.

On the very lowest one she sat down with her feet in a cloud, and wept most bitterly. Soon she heard a fluttering in the air, and Iris glanced by and vanished in the cloud. Presently she returned, bringing with her a little girl whom Ida had often seen frolicking among the other children, a sunny-haired, rosy-cheeked child, named Hebe, the veriest romp in the village. Ida had always thought her a foolish little thing, because she was always playing about like a kitten, and never came to the sea shore to listen to the winds, and see the great waves roll in; and now here she was, ascending the marble stairs, with her white feet, and rosy smile, and rainbow colors, from the wings of Iris, glittering all around her. Ida knew by the crystal vase she bore, that Hebe was to serve the immortals, and she longed to peep in and see how they would receive her; but she feared the haughty gaze of Juno, and the scornful glance of Apollo; so, burying her face in her hands, she remained weeping on the step. After a long while she heard a light motion beside her, and looking up, saw the beautiful eyes of Psyche, looking gently down upon her.

"Ah, little girl," she said, "you were sadly awkward. I pitied you very much, for I know what it is for a mortal to stand among the immortals; I never could have been here if I had not been brought by Love."

"But I also loved them," sobbed Ida. Psyche smiled a little. "Yes, my child, you were dazzled by their beauty, and thought you could fly up hither on the first morning breeze. But know—the gods are not easily approached; weary were the works I had to perform before I could be admitted, although led by Cupid. And know also, that all who enter must come with fair foreheads and serene eyes. You are a wee thing, with sad, shy eyes; and then those dusty feet of yours—Jupiter would never like to have those treading upon his golden floors. It is useless to sit weeping here. Minerva will order you off if she finds you. She has the care of the steps. You had better go back to your village and learn to spin with your mother."

"But I have no mother," cried Ida, "and my father is always out fishing. If I go among the children they will only laugh at me, because I told them such grand stories about the immortals, and left their plays to wander alone on the shore; and how can I go back to seaweed and rocks again, after having had a glimpse of this golden Olympus? O, I wish I were only a little brown leaf!" and she wept more and more, as if her very heart would break.

Psyche looked thoughtfully at her a while, and then said, "Would you like to be one of the Doves of Venus?"

"O, yes!" exclaimed Ida, her eyes brightening.

"But remember you will have to obey her every fancy, and fly far and wide; and her jewelled car is not light, nor does she drive with gentle rein."

But Ida, with clasped hands, entreated that she might become one of Venus's Doves; so Psyche kissed her tearful face, and she was changed into a dove with soft, bright eyes, dainty red feet, and a breast white as the sea foam. She flew into the circle of immortals, and none recognized in her the little stumbling girl, except Mercury, who merely smiled to himself, and was too good natured to reveal the secret.

Venus was much pleased to see a new, shining dove fluttering at her feet, and immediately harnessed it to her car, with delicate hands, and flew far over land and sea. Whether the little dove Ida found Venus and her winged car a weary burden to draw, I cannot tell you; but some time you may yourself become one of Venus's doves, and then you will know all about it.