ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE

BY V. C. TURNBULL

"Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain-tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing;
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
"Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing-care and grief-of-heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die."

Shakespeare.

Never was musician like Orpheus, who sang songs, inspired by the Muses, to a lyre that was given to him by Apollo. So mighty indeed was the magic of his music, that Nature herself owned his sway. Not only did rocks and rills repeat his lays, but the very trees uprooted themselves to follow in his train, and the savage beasts of the forest were tamed and fawned upon him as he played and sang.

But of all who hearkened enchanted to those matchless strains, none drew deeper delight therefrom than the singer's newly wed wife, the young and lovely Eurydice. Hour by hour she sat at his feet hearkening to the music of his voice and lyre, and the gods themselves might have envied the happy pair.

And surely some god did look with envious eye upon those two. For on an evil day, Eurydice, strolling with her maidens through a flowery meadow, was bitten on her foot by a viper and perished in all her beauty ere the sun went down.

Then Orpheus, terrible in his anguish, swore that death itself should not forever rob him of his love. His song, which could tame wild beasts and drag the ancient trees from their roots, should quell the powers of hell and snatch back Eurydice from their grasp.

Thus he swore, calling on the gods to help him; and taking his lyre in his hand he set forth on that fearful pilgrimage from which never man—unless, like Hercules, he was a hero, half man and half god—had returned alive.

And now he reaches the downward path, the end whereof is lost in gloom. Deeper and deeper he descended till the light of day was quite shut out, and with it all the sounds of the pleasant earth. Downward through the silence as of the grave, downward through darkness deeper than that of any earthly night. Then out of the darkness, faint at first, but louder as he went on, came sounds that chilled his blood—shrieks and groans of more than mortal anguish, and the terrible voices of the Furies, speaking words that cannot be uttered in any human tongue.

When Orpheus heard these things his knees shook and his feet paused as if rooted to the ground. But remembering once more his love and all his grief, he struck his lyre and sang, till his dirge, reverberating like a coronach or funeral march, drowned all the sounds of hell. And Charon, the old ferryman, subdued by the melody, ferried him over the ninefold Styx which none save the dead might cross; and when Orpheus reached the other side great companies of pale ghosts flocked round him on that drear shore; for the singer was no shadowy ghost like themselves, but a mortal, beautiful though woebegone, and his song spoke to them as with a thousand voices of the sunlight and the familiar earth, and of those who were left behind in their well-loved homes.

But Orpheus, not finding Eurydice among these, made no tarrying. Onward he passed, over the flaming flood of Phlegethon, through the cloud-hung and adamantine portals of Tartarus. Here Pluto, lord of the under-world, sits enthroned, and round him sinners do penance for the evil that they wrought upon earth. There Ixion, murderer of his father-in-law, is racked upon the ever-turning wheel, and Tantalus, who slew his son, endures eternal hunger in sight of food and eternal fear from the stone ever ready to fall. There the daughters of DanaŁs cease not to pour water into bottomless urns. There Sisyphus, who broke faith with the gods when they permitted him to return a little while to the upper world, evermore rolls up a steep hill a great stone that, falling back from the summit, crushes the wretch in its downward rush.

But now a great marvel was seen in hell. For as Orpheus entered singing, his melodies, the first that had ever sounded in that dread abode, caused all its terrors for a moment to cease. Tantalus caught no more at the fruits that slipped through his fingers, Ixion's wheel ceased to turn, the daughters of DanaŁs paused at their urns, and Sisyphus rested on his rock. Nay, the very Furies themselves ceased to scourge their victims, and the snakes that mingled with their locks hung down, forgetting to hiss.

So came Orpheus to the throne of great Pluto, by whose side sat Proserpine, his Queen. And the king of the infernal gods asked: "What wouldst thou, mortal, who darest to enter unbidden this our realm of death?"

Orpheus answered, touching his lyre the while: "Not as a spy or a foe have I come where no living wight hath ventured before, but I seek my wife, slain untimely by the fangs of a serpent. Such love as mine for a maiden such as she must melt the stoniest heart. Thy heart is not all of stone, and thou too didst once love an earthly maiden. By these places filled with horrors, and by the silence of these boundless realms, I entreat thee restore Eurydice to life."

He paused, and all Tartarus waited with him for a reply. The terrible eyes of Pluto were cast down, and to Proserpine came a memory of the far-off days when she too was a maid upon earth sporting in the flowery meads of Enna. Then Orpheus struck again his magic strings and sang: "To thee we all belong; to thee soon or late we all must come. It is but for a little space that I crave my Eurydice. Nay, without her I will not return. Grant, therefore, my prayer, O Pluto, or slay me here and now."

Then Pluto raised his head and spoke: "Bring hither Eurydice."

And Eurydice, still pale and limping from her mortal wound, was brought from among the shades of the newly dead.

And Pluto said: "Take back, Orpheus, thy wife Eurydice, and lead her to the upper world again. But go thou before and leave her to follow after. Look not once back till thou hast passed my borders and canst see the sun, for in the moment when thou turnest thy head, thy wife is lost to thee again and forever."

Then with great joy Orpheus turned and led Eurydice from thence. They left behind the tortured dead and the gibbering ghosts; they crossed the flaming Phlegethon, and Charon rowed them once more over the ninefold Styx; and up the dark path they went, the cries of Tartarus sounding ever fainter in their ears; and anon the light of the sun shone faint and far where the path returned to earth, and as they pressed forward the song of the little birds made answer to the lyre of Orpheus.

But the cup of happiness was dashed from the lips that touched its brim. For even as they stood upon the uttermost verge of the dark place, the light of the sun just dawning upon their faces and their feet within a pace of earthly soil, Eurydice stumbled and cried out in pain.

Without a thought Orpheus turned to see what ailed her, and in that moment was she caught from him. Far down the path he saw her, a ghost once more, fading from his sight like smoke as her faint form was lost in the gloom; only for a moment could he see her white arms stretched towards him in vain; only once could he hear her last heart-broken farewell.

Down the path rushed Orpheus, clamoring for his Eurydice lost a second time; but vain was all his grief, for not again would Charon row him across the Styx. So the singer returned to earth, his heart broken, and all joy gone from his life. Thenceforth his one consolation was to sit upon Mount Rhodope singing his love and his loss. And the Thracian women, worshipers of Bacchus, kindling at his strains, called to him to join in their wild rites. But when he turned from them with loathing, they fell upon him, tearing him limb from limb. And his head they cast into the river Hebrus, whose banks bore to the ∆gean Sea that long-drawn wail: "Eurydice, Eurydice!" And still as we hear the music of that sweet name we think of "infinite passion, and the pain of finite hearts that yearn."

But the gods, first punishing the Thracian women by turning them into trees, took the lyre of Orpheus and set it among the stars. And Orpheus himself, once more entering by the gate of death the regions of the dead, seeks and finds his beloved Eurydice. Now may they walk side by side, now Orpheus, if he goes before, may look back in safety upon the face of his loved one. For the sorrows of life are over and the pangs of death are past, and no shadow of parting can come between the singer and his love in the Elysium of the Blessed.