THE STORY OF PHAETON

BY M. M. BIRD

A fiery and high-spirited youth, Phaeton could not brook the taunts of his playmate Epaphus, who claimed divine descent from Isis. When Phaeton boasted that his father was Ph[oe]bus the Sun-god, Epaphus only laughed and called him a base-born pretender. So one day Phaeton, stung to madness by these taunts, went boldly to his mother Clymené and demanded that she should give him some clear proof that he was indeed, as she averred, the very son of Phœbus. Clymené lifted her beautiful hands to the Sun, who rode gorgeous in the Heavens, and swore by him that none other than Phœbus was the father of the boy. "Nevertheless," said she, "if this doth suffice you not, and you seek other proof, travel yourself to his Eastern Mansion, which lies not so far remote from here, and ask him whether you are not his son."

The ambitious youth hastened to follow her counsel; he longed to see his father, and to visit the Eastern Mansion where he abode. Through India he traveled in haste, never resting till afar off he saw the wondrous light that shimmered perpetually over the Palace of the Sun.

High it stood on columns of burnished gold ablaze with jewels. The folding doors were of silver, the walls of ivory, and Vulcan had wrought the precious metals in designs of wonderful beauty. The seas, the earth, the fair forms of the immortal gods, all graced the carven portals.

Phaeton, toiling up the steep ascent, saw at a great distance the dazzling god, seated high on an imperial throne, all sparkling with gems. The Hours, Days, Months, and Years, were ranged on either hand. He saw Spring decked in flowers, Summer with her garner of grain, Autumn bowed beneath his burden of grapes and fruits, and hoary Winter shivering behind them. The all-beholding eye of the god perceived him from afar, and before he had spoken a word, a voice from the throne bade him welcome: "What wants my son? For my son thou art." Thus encouraged, the youth, though dazzled by the exceeding brightness, poured out his tale and proffered his petition.

The god was touched by his tale of wrong. Flinging aside the awful glories that surrounded him, he bade his son advance, and embraced him with tenderness.

"Make of me some request," he said, "and to convince thee that I am thy father, I swear by Styx to grant it, whate'er it be."

The youth was transported with delight, and asked at once to be permitted to guide the Sun's bright chariot for one day.

Phœbus was grieved beyond measure at the young man's rash ambition, and bitterly repented of his oath; but even a god, when he has sworn by Styx, cannot take back or annul that awful oath.

"Ask of me some other proof," he begged. "Too vast and hazardous this task for thy strength and years. Not one of all the gods—not Jupiter himself, ruler of the sky—dares mount that burning chariot, save I alone!" He told him how with pain and labor the wild steeds climb up the arc of the sky—how from the topmost pinnacles of Heaven the Earth and Ocean lie so far beneath that even he himself is sometimes seized with giddiness and his brain reels. And when down the steep descent of the western sky the horses plunge headlong, it needs a strong and steady hand to check them in their course. He told him how, through all his daily task, the brave Sun has to front the opposing forces of the Bear, the Scorpion, and the Dog Star, and guide his steeds among their influences. Through a thousand snares his progress lies, with forms of starry monsters ready to devour him if he strays by a hair's breadth from the appointed way. And the very horses themselves, when their mettle is up, are a team that only a god may control. "My son," he besought him, "do not require of me a fatal gift."

But the fond father pleaded in vain. The bold youth was unaffrighted, and the oath was binding.

The time had come: Aurora heralded the new day. The golden chariot made by Vulcan was drawn forth; the spokes of the wheels were of silver, its seat was starred with gems.

The nimble Hours brought forth from their stalls the fiery steeds.

With last words of warning and advice, the father bade his son farewell, and watched him wend forth on his perilous journey. The youth leaped into the seat, he gathered up the reins, and gave his father such praise and thanks for his indulgence as cut him to the heart.

The horses neighed and pranced, breathing fire from their distended nostrils. They sprang out through the gates of Dawn and flew over the clouds, leaving the light breezes of Morn far behind them.

The youth was light; he could not poise or weight the chariot as did its accustomed rider. The bounding car was tossed to and fro, the sport of winds and currents. Wildly they hurtled headlong up the sky. The steeds perceived the lighter weight, the weaker hands. They plunged, and plunging, left the stated course.

The youth became confused; he looked around him, but could no longer recognize the track. He did not know which way to steer, nor would the horses have obeyed his hand. Wildly they careered and brought the heat of midday into far regions of the Heavens that were unused to its untempered rays. All around him monstrous threatening shades awoke and stirred in the Heavens as he vexed them with the heat. Far, far below the affrighted youth could see Earth and Ocean spread out. But as his chariot raced madly down the heights, the clouds were dispersed by his fierce rays, the high mountains began to smoke, the forests to burn; ripened harvests were devoured by fire, whole cities were turned to ashes. Pindus and Parnassus were steaming, the fountains of Mount Ida were dried up, and Ætna raged with redoubled heat. Even the towering Apennines and Caucasus lost their snows, and the huge Alps were one range of living flame.

The horrified youth beheld the universe burn around him, and he could scarce endure the sultry vapors that rose about him as from a furnace. Lost in clouds of whirling smoke and ashes, the steeds careered madly to and fro, he knew not whither. It is said that in that day the Moor began to change his hue and turn black, and Libya and all the deserts of Africa were then first drained of their moisture and left in great tracts of parching sandy waste. The great rivers, the Ganges, Euphrates, and the Danube, rose up in clouds of hissing steam, and the frightened Nile ran off and hid his head in the sands, and there for centuries and centuries it has lain hid.

Stern Neptune, in amazement and anger, thrice reared his head above the shrinking waves where his fishes all were dying, and thrice the fierce flames drove him back.

At length Earth, wrapped in her scalding seas, uplifting her scorching brows, appealed to Jupiter.

"See how fierce vapors choke my breath; see my singed hair, my withered face, the heaps of cinders that defile my fair body.... Have pity."

Jupiter heard her prayer. He mounted his high ethereal throne, called all powers, even the god whose son drove the chariot, to witness that what he did he was compelled to do, and launched a thunderbolt at the head of the despairing Phaeton.

Thus with fire the god of gods suppressed the raging fire. Lifeless from the chariot the boy fell like a falling star, and his charred body dropped to the earth far from his own land, far in the western world, beside the river Po.

The horses broke loose from their harness, the chariot was splintered into a thousand shining fragments and scattered far over the steaming earth.

And the story goes, that for the space of one whole day, from morn till eve, the world existed without a sun, lighted only by the lurid glare of the burning ruins.

Beside the waters of the river the Latian nymphs came round and gazed with awe upon the dead youth. His charred body they inclosed in a marble urn and wrote on it an epitaph:

"Here lies a youth as beautiful as brave,
Who through the heavens his father's chariot drave."
 

His mother Clymené, frantic with grief, ceased not to roam the world, followed by her weeping daughters, until at last she came to the banks of Po, and found there the sculptured urn. She hung above it, bedewing the marble with her tears, crying aloud the name so dear to her. Her daughters stood around, weeping and lamenting with her. All night long they kept their watch, and returning day found them still calling on their brother's name. Four days and nights they kept their stand, till at length, when for their weariness they would have sought rest, they found they could not move. Phaethusa's arms were covered with hardening bark and branching boughs; Lampetia stood rooted to the ground; Æglé, as she tore her hair, only filled her hands with leaves. While their faces were yet untransformed, they cried to their mother for help. But, alas! she was powerless. She tore the bark from their fair bodies, she stripped the leaves from their sprouting fingers, she clung to their hardening limbs in vain. Only blood came trickling where she tore away the leaves and bark, and in faint voices the maidens cried that she only wounded her daughters when she tore their trees.

Then the bark covered their fair faces, and they stood for ever dumb, waving green boughs in the sun, while tears of amber rolled slowly down the encrusting bark.