ARETHUSA

BY V. C. TURNBULL

Lord of all waters was Oceanus, the ancient Titan god, whose beard, like a foaming cataract, swept to his girdle. Many fair daughters had he, of whom poets sing, yet the fairest of all was the nymph Arethusa. She had not lacked for wooers, but she shunned the haunts of men and abode on the Acroceraunian heights whence she had sprung, or when she descended to the plain hid herself in tangled bushes and overhanging alders. She loved the quiet woodland ways, and had vowed herself to the chaste huntress Diana, and in her train loved to fleet through the woods and over the plains of Achaia, chasing the flying deer.

Now it happened one day that Arethusa, wearied with hunting and with the great heat, wandered alone among the woods and meadows, seeking a place of rest. Presently she heard the ripple of waters, and soon she came to a river flowing between straight poplars and hoary willows. Swiftly and quietly it ran, making no eddies, and so pure were its waters that she could count the pebbles lying in its deep bed like jewels in an open casket.

Joyfully then the tired maiden unbound her sandals, and, sitting down upon the bank, dipped her white feet in the cool water. For a while she sat there undisturbed, and idly watched the growing ripples as she dabbled in the stream. But while she thus rested and played, a strange commotion drew her eyes to the middle of the stream, and a fear fell upon her, for she knew that it could be none other than Alpheus, the god of that river. Quickly she sprang to her feet, and while yet she stood trembling and irresolute, a hollow voice cried to her from mid-stream. And (oh marvel!) the voice was not terrible like that of a god, but tender and full of pleading love.

"Whither dost thou hasten, Arethusa?" it said. And again: "Whither dost thou hasten?"

But Arethusa, a maiden who cared nothing for love, would be wooed by neither god nor man.

Swiftly she fled from the enchanted spot, even before the young river-god had sprung from the stream with love and longing in his eyes. And now began that long chase of which the end was even stranger than the beginning. Arethusa, weary no longer, darted like a fawn from the river, and Alpheus, more ardent still as the maid was coy, swiftly followed her flying steps. Through woods and meadows, over hills and across valleys—yes, and past more than one city, fled pursuer and pursued. But now, as the day drew towards sunsetting, Arethusa's strong limbs wearied, her strength flagged, and her pace slackened, and in her sick heart she knew how vain a thing it is for a mortal to strive against a god. For no weariness weighed down the feet of Alpheus; straight and swift he ran as his own river. Now so near was he to the maiden that his long shadow fell across her feet; but no faster could she go, for the sun smote fiercely upon her, and her strength was failing. Louder and louder sounded the footsteps of the god. Now she could feel his hard breathing in her long hair; was there no escape? With her last strength she cried to her sovereign mistress: "Help, O Huntress, thy huntress maiden! Aid her who so often carried thy bow and thine arrows in the chase!"

And the goddess answered her votary.

For at once Arethusa was wrapped in a dense cloud, so dense indeed that even the burning eyes of her pursuer could not pierce it. There, then, she crouched, like a hare on its form, while outside she heard the footsteps of Alpheus pacing round her hiding-place, searching and baffled. But he, having come so near his prize, would not now give it up, and she knew that he would watch the cloud till she came forth. At the thought, beads of sweat gathered on her forehead and ran down to her feet. Faster and faster it poured; she was as ice that melts in the sun; and she realized with joy that the goddess was opening for her another way of escape. All her weariness and terror slid from her straightway; her tired limbs melted into a liquid ease, and it was no maiden but a laughing stream that shot from under the cloud and fled singing towards the western sea.

But Alpheus, noting the guile of the goddess, laughed aloud, for could he not at will become even as his own river? He changed even as he conceived the thought; and now the chase began once more, only this time river pursued stream, leaping from crag to crag, and rushing across wide wastes of marshy country.

And again Arethusa, finding herself in straits, cried aloud to her sovereign mistress Diana. And, behold, in answer to her prayer, the earth was suddenly rent asunder and a vast black chasm yawned in her path. Into it she plunged, and down, down, down she fell. And into it in pursuit plunged also Alpheus, who loved her so well that he was ready to follow her to the depths of the earth.


The darkness passed, and overhead was a beautiful green light, and on all sides a profound and solemn silence. Arethusa had left the land behind, and was pushing across the floor of the ocean. And behind her came the waters of Alpheus. Then into the maiden heart, which as yet had known not love, came something better than fear. From the lover who could follow her even hither why should she fly? On he came, undeterred and unpolluted by the brackish sea, his waters as fresh and pure as when they had first run laughing through the sunlit meadows of Arcadia.... Arethusa sought no more to fly. Love had conquered—Love, the lord of gods and men, who mocks at maidens' vows and melts the coldest breast. So there, amid the alien waters of the sea, the two met in loving embrace, never again to part. And after this the gods brought them once again to the light of the sun. For, finding at length a way of escape through a fissure of the rocks, they rushed forth as that Arethusan Fount which springs up in the Sicilian island of Ortygia.

"And now from their fountains
In Enna's mountains,
Down one dale where the morning basks
Like friends once parted
Grown single-hearted,
They ply their watery tasks.
At sunrise they leap
From their cradles steep
In the cave of the shelving hill;
At noontide they flow
 Through the woods below
And the meadows of Asphodel;
And at night they sleep
In the rocking deep
Beneath the Ortygian shore;—
Like spirits that lie
In the azure sky
When they love but live no more."

Shelley