(After William Morris)


In ancient times there lived in Cyprus a sculptor named Pygmalion. He had won for himself fame and wealth by his cunning as a worker in marble, and his carven images of gods and goddesses, of heroes and heroines, were to be seen in every temple of the island and in all the palaces of the great. Many an island maiden cast on him admiring eyes, and would beseech him to immortalize her features in marble when he was engaged in sculpturing a naiad for a public fountain, or an oread for the shrine of the Great Huntress. Yet, though rich and famous and admired of women, Pygmalion was sad and dissatisfied. The nobles applauded and feasted him, but regarded him as an artisan of low birth and would not admit him to their friendship. The fairest maidens of Crete seemed to him plain and common when he compared them with the godlike forms that his chisel had wrought, and, still more, with the perfect woman whom his imagination pictured but even his hand had not the skill to realize.

So it chanced one day that, after wandering listlessly about the streets, watching the bales of Tyrian purple piled on the quays, and listening to the chaffering of the dark-eyed merchants, he hied him home heavy-hearted, and turned mechanically for relief to the daily work by which he earned his bread.

He had begun rough-hewing a block of Parian marble, uncertain at starting what he should make of it; but as he worked on, the veins in the marble suggested to him a woman's form, and in careless mood he exclaimed, "Grant, Lady Venus, that this statue may be a fulfilment of my dream, an express image, a reflection on earth of thy celestial beauty. Only grant my prayer and I vow that the maid shall be dedicated to thee, and serve thee in thy myrtle grove." So he prayed carelessly, but the goddess was by and heard his prayer, and so guided his hand that he wrought more surely and deftly than he had ever wrought before. As the white chips flew beneath his touch, a strange joy thrilled his heart, and withal, a dim sense of trouble, as though he were pursuing his own shadow, a phantom of his brain that still eluded his grasp.

So he worked on hour after hour through the day, and all night he dreamt of his work. So absorbed was he that for a whole month he forgot his morning plunge in the river, forgot his stroll through the woods at sunset, forgot even to water the flowers in his garden close. And yet, so exquisitely delicate were the added touches and the smoothing of the marble, that you could have covered with a penny-piece all that had fallen in the month from his chisel.

And still he seemed no nearer to his goal; so one morning, after a restless night, he arose and said to himself, "Pygmalion, thou art mad; some witch hath laid her spell upon thee. Rouse thyself while it is yet time; break the wicked spell; live as thou didst before, and seek not to attain that perfect beauty that is laid up in the heavens beyond mortal ken."

With that he took his bow and quiver, passed through the town and out of the gates to the high woodlands beyond, to see if he had quite forgotten his old woodcraft.

It was a fine summer morning, and the scent of the fields was wafted to him on the west wind. All around him as he passed was astir with life. The tall poplars rippled and quivered in the sunlight; the bees were busy in the clover; the swallows darted overhead, and the swish of the mower's scythe kept time with him as he strode on.

At last he sat him down fordone. "The sun," he mused, "like me, has already passed his zenith and is hurrying to his rest. All nature is stirring, and each living thing is pursuing the daily round, its appointed task. Why am I alone a dreamer of dreams, the idler of an empty day?"

With that he turned, and, goaded on by a wild desire, he knew not for what, found himself before he was aware at his own door.

One moment he lingered at the threshold and said, "Ah! what should I do if she were gone?" As he uttered the words he turned red at his own madness to dream that the goddess might have wrought a miracle and spirited her away to the myrtle grove, and yet again he turned deadly pale at the very thought of such a marvel. So, sighing, he passed into the house, but paused again before he summoned courage to enter his chamber where the statue stood.

Nothing was changed. He caught up his chisel and tenderly essayed to perfect the marvel of the face that he had wrought. But to touch it now seemed to him a profanation, and flinging down the idle chisel he cried, "Alas! why have I made thee that thou should'st mock me thus? I know that there are many like unto thee, whose beauty is a snare to draw men into the net; but these the gods made to punish lust. Thee I made with a pure heart to worship and adore, and thou wilt not speak one little word to me."

So saying, he drew back and gazed on the image through his tears. In truth it was of wondrous beauty, and could you have seen it, you would have said that it lacked little to be a living maid. Her unbound hair half hid the tender curve of her breast; one hand was outstretched as if to greet a lover, and the other held a full-blown rose. There was no smile on the parted lips, and in the wistful eyes there was a look, not of love, but as of one to whom love's mystery and magic were already half revealed.

Thus he stood agaze, ashamed of his infatuate folly, yet with an infinite longing, stronger and stranger than he had ever felt before.

There happened to be passing in the street some sturdy slaves who were bearing bales to the wharf. He hailed them and offered them a rich reward if they would help him to move the ponderous statue and set it in an empty niche beside his bed. When they had departed he searched his coffers to find gems and jewels wherewith to deck his lady of marble, but those he possessed seemed all too poor; so he took with him all his store of gold and bought from the merchants a necklace of pearls, and anklets and bracelets set with rare and precious stones. These he hung upon the cold marble and cast him down like a pilgrim at a shrine, praying his saint to accept his poor offering. So he prayed on till, outworn with passion, he slept at her feet. With the first dawn he awoke and passed into his garden to pick fresh flowers to lay upon her shrine. Then he brought an altar that he had wrought of chased gold for a great lord's hearth, and lit thereon a fire of cedar and sandal-wood, and, as the smoke of cassia and frankincense arose, he prayed and said, "Thou cold and mute image, not till I die shall I know whether the gods have sent a lying spirit to make me their sport, but this I know, that in life I shall love none but thee alone. Therefore, if thou canst not give me love for love, in pity take my life and let me rest at last."

Thus he prayed, and the image neither spake nor moved, but the sweet grave eyes his hands had wrought gazed down, as if touched with ruth and tenderness, on his bended head. So all day he worshiped at the shrine; but on the morrow, as the incense-smoke was curling round her head, he heard in the street the sound of minstrelsy, and as if fascinated by the sweet music, he left his prayer half said and went forth and beheld a gay train of men and maidens who bore on a car of gold an image of the Queen of Love that he himself had wrought in the old forgotten days, now draped for her solemn festival in a saffron robe broidered with mystic characters of gold.

So he donned a festal chlamys and joined the glad procession, who led the goddess back to her temple, stripped her reverently of her weeds, and laid at her shrine their offerings of golden grain and honeycomb. By midday the crowd of worshipers had all departed, and he was left alone in the dim-lit temple. He drew near the shrine where stood his masterpiece—how feeble and faulty now it seemed—and casting incense on the altar flame, he prayed with stammering lips to his goddess:

"Queen of Heaven, who didst help me of yore, help me yet again. Have I not prayed, have I not wept, have I not done thee true service? I have no words to tell thee my need, but thou knowest all my heart's desire. Hear me, O Queen!"

And, as he prayed, suddenly the thin flame on the altar quivered like a live thing, and leapt up till it almost touched the temple dome, sinking once more into a feeble flicker.

At this marvel his heart bounded wildly; but as the flame died down he said to himself, "Is not this another brain-sick phantom?" and with sad steps and slow he left the temple to seek his loveless home.

As he stood before the door in the broad light of day he seemed like one awaking from a dream, yet the bliss it had brought still lingered on, like the after-glow on an Alpine height, and he blessed the goddess even for his dream. So he entered his chamber, wrapped in memories both sad and sweet, and paused with downcast eyes before they sought again his marble maid. Then he looked up, and lo, the niche was bare! and he cried aloud, bewildered and amazed. A soft, low voice breathed his name. He turned, and there between him and the setting sun stood his marble maid, clad in life and new beauty. The lineaments were the same—the brow, the lips, the tresses unconfined; but she came appareled in a more precious habit, for over all the goddess had shed the purple light of love, and had clothed her in the shining garment that he had seen that morning laid up in her temple.

Speechless he stood in wonder and amazement, and once again her silver voice rang out clear:

"Wilt thou not come to me,
O dear companion of my new-found life,
For I am called thy lover and thy wife."

Still he moved not, and spake no word. Then she reached her hand to him, and looked at him with pleading eyes. The spell that bound him was broken; he caught the outstretched hands and drew her to him, felt the sweet breath he had sought so long in vain, felt the warm life within her heaving breast, and clasped in his arms his living love.

And, as they stood there, cheek touching cheek, he heard her say, "Why art thou silent, O my love? Dost think, perchance, that this too is a dream? Nay, if thou lov'st me still, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee. Come with me into thy garden close, and there will I tell thee all the comfortable words that the Queen of Love spoke to me, and thou shalt tell me all thy hopes and fears, thy yearning for a beauty not of earth, thy sleepless nights, and all thy pain."

So they passed into the garden close, and there beneath the whispering trees, by the soft moonlight, those happy lovers told each other the story of their love. What were the words they said I cannot tell again. This happened long ago, when the world was young, and they spoke in a tongue that few if any now can understand. Yet a poet of our own age has understood and translated for us the last word that the Queen of Heavenly Love spoke to her servant Pygmalion:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."