HYPERMNESTRA

BY V. C. TURNBULL

Danaüs and Ægyptus, two brothers, ruled together over Egypt. And to Danaüs fifty daughters were born, while Ægyptus begot fifty sons. Yet was not Danaüs happy; nay, he went all day in fear. For the mysterious voice of the Theban oracle had sounded terribly in his ears:

WHEN THY DAUGHTER MARRIETH,
DANAÜS, THOU ART DOOMED TO DEATH!

Never could Danaüs put these words from his mind. Walking alone in the gardens of his palace, he started, thinking one whispered them in his ear; at the banquet they sounded like thunder above the singing of the minstrels; and at night he lay trembling on his bed, hearing the doom of the oracle spoken in low tones out of the darkness. So the life of Danaüs became dark and bitter, and his heart grew hard and cruel with fear.

Now the sons of Ægyptus were grown into comely youths, and to their father it seemed but fitting that they should marry their cousins, the daughters of Danaüs, beautiful maidens all. But when he spoke thereon to his brother, a great terror fell on Danaüs. For casting his eyes on the young men as they strove together in their sports, he thought with bitterness: "Yea, and shall one of these be my murderer?" Then, in fear and rage, he turned to his brother, and, snarling like a wolf, cried, "Child of mine weds not child of thine!" Whereat Ægyptus raged mightily, swearing to fulfil his purpose, so that Danaüs, ever cunning rather than valiant, made amends for his hasty words and promised to tell his daughters of their uncle's pleasure.

Howbeit, that night Danaüs gathering together his daughters, his slaves, and his goods, secretly left the palace, and flying northward to the coast of the Great Sea, there took ship and came at length to Argos in Greece. Gelanor, King of Argos, received Danaüs and his daughters with kindness and feasted them with royal cheer. But the heart of Danaüs knew not gratitude, and having left the throne of Egypt, he sought how to take that of Argos. Nor was this difficult, for Gelanor was at strife with his people, who were but too ready to seek a new ruler. Therefore, when Danaüs spoke to them fair words, promising them many things, they gave glad heed, and ere many days had passed Gelanor was driven forth and Danaüs ruled over Argos in his stead.

But not long was he left in peace. For his brother Ægyptus, enraged to find Danaüs forsworn, and hearing of his fortune in Argos, called his sons together and cried to them, saying: "Sons, will ye suffer yourselves to be fooled? Shall this man snatch from you your brides and rule in peace on the throne which he hath stolen? Nay, if ye be sons of mine, go, gather to yourselves a mighty army and take from him his daughters and his land, and the gods prosper you and protect your rights."

Then the young men, kindling at their father's words, gathered quickly a great host, and sailing in a fleet to Argos, they harried the country before Danaüs knew of their landing. And when one ran to tell him of their coming, a great fear struck upon his heart, for louder than ever in Egypt sounded in his ear:

WHEN THY DAUGHTER MARRIETH,
DANAÜS, THOU ART DOOMED TO DEATH!

So with fear and hatred in his breast, but with smooth words upon his lips, he went forth to meet the young men and their followers, who were even now at the palace gates. All that they demanded he promised.

"Take my daughters to wife," he cried; "reign over Argos in my stead, for I am old, and weary of ruling a strange people!"

So the young men were admitted into the palace, and the maidens their cousins received them with mirth and feasting, and the day of their nuptials was appointed.

But before the day came, the crafty Danaüs called his daughters to him and commanded them on peril of their lives to slay their husbands so soon as they should be wedded. And to each he gave a sharp dagger to conceal under her wedding robe. These, therefore, the daughters of Danaüs took, purposing to obey their father. For many of them were cruel even as he, while others, caring nothing for their affianced husbands, feared greatly to disobey Danaüs. So it was that as they took counsel together in the women's chamber after leaving their father's presence, there was but one voice among the maidens as to the wisdom of obeying his word.

But the youngest, Hypermnestra, was silent. For her heart was tender and pitiful, and Lynceus, her betrothed, youngest of the sons of Ægyptus and the fairest, had moved her heart to love and tenderness. Like her sisters, she feared her father, and never before had she disobeyed his orders; but love conquered fear, and pity was stronger than filial duty.

Now came the day of the weddings, and at night a great feast was spread. Golden lamps shed their radiance throughout the palace, and clouds of incense rolled up from the altar of Hymen, the god of happy nuptials. But Hypermnestra, heart-sick at the mockery, loathed the rich viands and the fumes of incense seemed to choke her.

The feast was over, and the young bridegrooms, crowned with chaplets of fresh flowers and dressed in wedding robes, had drunk deeply of drugged wine, and were half asleep before they reached their bridal chambers—led like lambs to the slaughter!


Hypermnestra sat up on her couch, listening with straining ears. Surely it was groaning she heard, on this side and on that. Her sisters were obeying their father's command, and dared she alone be disobedient? By her side lay young Lynceus, flushed with wine and sleep, his head thrown back, his breast bare. Nearer and louder sounded the groans, and she knew that Danaüs would speedily be coming to count the dead. In her terror she raised her weapon, and would have stricken first her lover and then herself.

"On earth," she cried, "there is no escape. I will die with my love, and we will go together to the realms of Tartarus, I the bride and he the bridegroom of Death."

But as she bent over the sleeping Lynceus her hot tears awoke him, and he stretched out his arms to embrace her. She started aside like a guilty thing and hid her dagger, and cried to Lynceus: "Arise, fly hence! else will to-night be to thee an everlasting night!"

"What sayest thou?" he murmured, only half awake. "Art mocking me? Is that a dagger in thy left hand?"

"Rise and fly, while there is yet time!" she cried again. "Thy brothers are already dead, treacherously slain by their brides. The dawn is near; soon it will be too late. Leave me; fly! I cannot bear to see thee slain!"

Then Lynceus sprang up and fled, and scarcely had he gone when Danaüs, gloating over his victims, entered to see if Hypermnestra had been obedient as her sisters. But Hypermnestra, fearful no longer, rose and faced him, holding out the bloodless dagger.

"Take back thy weapon, cruel father," she cried. "Nay, and if thou wilt, smite me therewith, slaying me with the death I would not bring upon my husband. But not in death itself shalt thou hear me say, 'I repent.'"

Strong and beautiful she stood there in the dawn, her eyes shining with triumph. But her father, enraged at the escape of one victim, struck her to the ground and ordered slaves to drag her by the hair to the palace dungeon. And not many days after, seated in the city hall of justice, he caused her to be brought before him to be sentenced for her disobedience. So slaves dragged in Hypermnestra, and she stood there before a great multitude, chains on her hands and feet, her white robe besmirched by the dungeon, but with the light of triumph still shining in her eyes. And all the people, seeing her, cried with one voice: "Spare her, O king!" and as his wrath burned yet fiercer as a fire that meets the blast, the prayer became a threat: "Spare her, thou cruel king!" But Danaüs, remembering the oracle, gnashed upon them with his teeth and rose as if to smite Hypermnestra with his own hand. But even as he rose a voice like thunder smote upon his ear: "Hold, thou cursed king!" and the crowd made way for a young warrior to pass. Like a young god, Lynceus rushed upon Danaüs and slew him at a stroke, and all the people hailed him as King over Argos, and his wife Hypermnestra as Queen.


But the guilty sisters of Hypermnestra, seeing what had chanced, fled from Argos, whither none knew or cared. And poets tell that after death their shades in Tartarus were condemned evermore to draw water in bottomless urns, a warning to all false wives and traitors; but Hypermnestra has won for herself a name that will live for all time as a maiden tender and true, who loved greatly and dared greatly.