HERO AND LEANDER

BY MRS. GUY E. LLOYD

The goddess Venus was the Queen of Love and Beauty, and her worship was spread over all the world, for indeed she was one of the greatest of the immortals, and even the father of gods and of men himself had to own her power.

She had many great and noted temples, and one of these was at Sestos, close by the side of the Hellespont, the sea in which Helle sank and was drowned when the Golden Ram carried off her brother Phrixus and herself.

When this tale begins the priestess of the temple of Venus at Sestos was a very beautiful maiden called Hero. It was her duty to tend the altar of the goddess, to offer sacrifices, to hang up the votive offerings of worshipers round the walls, and to see that the slaves appointed to the work kept the marble steps and pillars always shining and polished.

And many a youth came to worship at the temple, less for the sake of the goddess than for the beautiful priestess; but Hero never gave a glance at any man but carefully fulfilled her daily task, and every night retired to a tall tower on the cliff beside the sea, where she lived alone with an aged nurse who loved her dearly and was ready to do anything for her.

Every year a great festival was held at Sestos, in honor of Adonis, the beautiful boy whom Venus had loved, and who had been slain by a wild boar. To this festival flocked all the countryside. Large-eyed oxen drew the creaking wagons all adorned with flowers and grasses, and crowded with rustics from the inland farms, and across the narrow strait came gay barges, bringing worshipers from the villages along the opposite shore. In the festal company there came one day from the town of Abydos, a beautiful youth named Leander. He was tall and straight as a young poplar, his bright eyes had a ready smile, his red lips a pleasant word for every one, but no maiden had ever yet won his love.

Leander only laughed at these reproaches, but hidden within his heart was the dream of a maiden fairer and sweeter than any he yet had seen, to whom he would give his whole heart, and who, so he dreamt, would give him love for love.

So it came about that when the yearly feast of Venus at Sestos returned, Leander determined to go and sacrifice at the altar of the goddess and pray to her that he might meet the maiden of his heart's desire.

With the throng of worshipers Leander mounted the hill to the temple of Venus. White marble steps led up to a bright crystal pavement that was called by the citizens of Sestos the glass of Venus. The walls were of veined marble, and on the dome a cunning artist had painted a vine of vivid green, with Bacchus, the friend of Venus, gathering the purple grapes. On the wall behind was Proteus, the changeful god of the changeful sea, whence Venus had arisen. Rich offerings of gold, silver, precious stones, and gorgeous raiment hung on the walls between the carven figures. Leander gazed his fill at all these wonders, till his eyes were caught and held by the statue of the goddess that stood on a pedestal in the middle of the temple. Beneath her feet was a great sea-shell, borne on a breaking wave; in her hands, held close against her breast, a pair of doves; her face, looking out upon her worshipers, was such a miracle of loveliness that the gazer caught his breath in awe and wonder.

Before the statue stood a little silver altar, and at this the priestess was kneeling when Leander came to the temple, for the sacrifice was just about to be consummated. For a while Leander saw nothing but the face of the marble goddess; then the kneeling priestess, robed in her gauzy veil, arose and faced for a moment the congregation of worshipers. Leander's eyes turned from the marble image to the living woman who stood before it, and the eyes of Hero met his. As if fascinated they gazed at one another, while in both their hearts flamed up the sudden fire of love.

The worshipers all knelt, and Leander knelt with them, but his prayer was not to Venus: his soul was full and overflowing with love for the fair priestess, and it was of her alone he thought.

It seemed as though Hero had read his thoughts, for as one who walks in his sleep she drew nearer to the young man.

He started to his feet, and bending forward grasped her hand. The sacrifice was over, the worshipers were dispersing, the two were left alone, and for a moment they stood motionless, both of them trembling and awed at their own emotion.

But when Hero, as if waking from a dream, strove to free her hand, Leander tightened his hold and whispered eagerly: "Nay, leave me not, fair maiden, for I love thee. Never before have I cared aught for mortal maid, but now thou art more to me than everything in the world beside."

Hero flushed a rosy red, and her long eyelashes veiled the light of her eyes.

"I know thee not, kind youth," she faltered, struggling betwixt love and maiden modesty, abashed at what she had done, and at the thought of how Leander's words had made her heart leap for joy. "It is not fitting that I should speak with thee—here." And then, in a lower whisper, turning half away and blushing more deeply than before, the maiden added hastily: "I dwell alone with my servant in yonder tower by the sea-shore, and when I leave the service of the goddess I ever put a light in the turret at the top, so that those on the sea may know where the haven lies and steer safely home. But thou must not seek me there."

And snatching her hand from Leander's grasp the affrighted maiden turned and fled, while the tears sprang to her eyes, and as she ran she wept and smiled. As she mounted the slope that led to her tower on the cliff she slackened her pace, and dashing the tears from her eyes, looked back. Leander stood still where she had left him, gazing after her. Flinging her veil back over her shoulder she resumed her homeward way, slowly and with many a backward look.

When she came to her tower Hero told her old servant to lay out all in readiness for the evening meal, and then to retire to her chamber above.

"Thou art overtired, my pretty one," said the old crone. "These crowded festivals and long days of sacrifice are too much for such a tender flower as thou. Never fear, I will leave thee here in peace—and see, I will light thy lamp in the turret above, even now in the daylight, then may I seek the couch whereof my old bones ever are full fain, and thou shalt not need to climb those weary stairs."

"As thou wilt, good nurse," answered Hero, turning aside to take off her veil and to hide her blush of pleasure. She had told Leander that the light was the signal that her office was ended for the day—would he notice it? Would he come?

She wandered out in the twilight and broke off branches of roses to deck the room; she put on the table the candied fruits and honey-cakes and wine of Cyprus that the worshipers of Venus offer to her priestess. The heavy footsteps of the old dame sounded as she mounted the stair and came back to her chamber and her wished-for bed. Then silence fell on the tower, and Hero sat with beating heart and waited.

Leander had climbed to the top of the cliff, and there had lain down with his face to the sea, determined to keep his eyes from the tower till there was a reasonable chance of seeing the light.

"When I see it glow," said Leander to himself, "then shall I too know where the haven lies, and steer safely home."

He closed his eyes that he might see once more in fancy the sweet averted face under the fine veil.

A noise below the cliff made him look up; the boat that had come from Abydos in the morning was starting back again. He watched it with a smile. It seemed to him a lifetime since he stepped from its deck upon the quay. Straight across to the other shore of this narrow arm of the sea was but a mile, but the slanting course to Abydos was full three miles' distance. Leander watched the boat as she left the quay with all his friends on board; then he could wait no longer; he looked up at Hero's tower; and there, in the top of the turret, flamed the signal light.

Small pause made Leander when once he had seen that.

Meanwhile, from her casement, Hero too had seen the boat putting out for Abydos, and believing Leander to be on board, gone from Sestos perhaps forever, the maiden sank down beside her open door, and covering her face with her hands she wept sore.

"Alas," she murmured, "he is gone, gone, gone! The boat has sailed away."

Leander, as he mounted the rocky stairs that led to the turret, overheard the maiden's cry, and, rushing forward, he flung himself on his knees beside her and softly kissed her fingers. Then, looking up with a start, the maiden would fain have seemed wroth at the sight of him, but it was too late. She had yielded at a touch, and Love was lord of all.

But on the morrow Leander must return to his home at Abydos. So he took ship early in the morning, finding a vessel that was sailing thither, and came to his own home again. His father noticed at once that the youth was wearing a sprig of myrtle and a scarf embroidered with the doves of Venus, and he chid him sharply.

"There are plenty of fair maids here, in thy own land," said he; "choose one of them and be happy with her, but woo not the priestess of Venus, or harm will come of it."

Leander made no answer to his father's admonition, but in his heart he knew that no other maiden could ever after content him, and that he must see Hero again, though he died for it.

After his father's admonition he dared not be seen crossing the strait by day, but when night fell he wandered by the sea, looking longingly across the dark water; then, far and faint, like a star through the clear night, he caught the glimmer of Hero's lamp.

"Alas!" cried Leander, "there lies the haven. Ah, would that I might steer safely home."

Then with sudden resolution he flung his outer garment from him and plunging into the water oared his way with mighty strokes towards the glimmer of the light, and Hero, combing her long locks in the moonlight and thinking of her lover, was ware that he stood before her, and could hardly believe it was his very self.

So once more they had joy of one another's love until the daybreak appeared in the sky, and then Leander said farewell with many kisses and swam safely home again, and no man the wiser.

The days passed on and the youth's father was pleased at his restored cheerfulness, and thought that Hero must be forgotten, for he never crossed as he had been wont to Sestos.

The summer passed, and one day there swept down from the hills the first of the autumn storms.

Poor Hero, as she set her light in the turret, looked out across the tossing, white-capped waves and sighed as she thought that no swimmer could cross a sea like that. But Leander flinched not, for he plunged, buffeting the angry waves with a good heart, and ever as he rose upon their crests looking out for Hero's light. The fury of the sea could not master him, but the autumn chill struck home to his bones. Long he battled with the rising billows, but the storm waxed fiercer and the farther shore seemed no nearer. Fainter and fainter grew the swimmer, but still he struggled on. When he looked from a crest of the waves his lodestar was gone; a black cloud had hidden the turret lamp. Then at last his heart failed him, and flinging up his arms he sank to his watery grave.

Long did Hero wait that night, hoping and fearing by turns; and when her lover did not come she wept bitter tears. But far worse pain was to come. For on the next day came to her tower the father of Leander.

"Is my son here?" he asked, briefly and sternly.

Hero trembling answered, "No, fair sir."

"Is it true that he hath many times swum across the sea and visited thee?"

The maiden hanging her head and blushing deeply answered, "Yea."

"Then without doubt my son is drowned, and by thy fault," said the grief-stricken father, "for this morning were his garments found near the water's edge, but of him there was no sign."

Even while he spoke there came from the quay a cry of sorrow and lamentation, and clambering swiftly down the cliff those two saw, laid upon the shore by tender hands, the strong and beautiful body of the dead Leander, whom they both had loved beyond all other living things upon the earth.