CEPHALUS AND PROCRIS

BY H. P. MASKELL

It was the banqueting-hall of the palace at Ægina. The young prince Phocus had invited his comrades to join him in a hunting party, and now, after dinner, they were gathered round the fire amusing themselves with stories of the chase. Meanwhile Cephalus, gray-headed and stricken in years, more weary than the others, sat silent and apart.

The prince, noticing his moody look, rose and made room for him to join the circle. "May I ask," he inquired, "from what tree the javelin thou art holding was cut? I have been a hunter all my life, yet its texture puzzles me. A wild oak would have been brown in color, a cornel-wood shaft would show the knots. Never yet have I seen so taper and shapely a javelin."

One of the youths interposed: "Ah! but as a weapon it is even more wonderful than for its beauty. Whatever it is aimed at it strikes. Chance does not guide its course when thrown; and it flies back of its own accord, stained with the blood of the quarry."

Then Phocus became more curious still to know its history. Who was the giver of so precious a present?

Cephalus at length consented to tell the story, tears starting to his eyes at the sorrow revived in his heart by the memories it recalled. "Long as I live," he exclaimed with a sigh, "this weapon will cause me to weep, for it proved the ruin of myself and my dear wife Procris. Fairer and sweeter was she than even her sister Orithyia, whom Boreas carried off. Her father Erechtheus bestowed her upon me, and for love she chose me for her own. I was considered a lucky man in possessing her, and so I was. In all Greece you could not have found a happier pair of lovers, and the gods themselves were jealous of our bliss—too great for mortals. Before the second month was ended after our marriage feast, Aurora, the goddess of the Dawn, beheld me in the early morn as I was planting nets to trap the deer from the heights of Hymettus, and I followed her against my will. She cast her spell on me, and held me by the witchery of her great eyes and rosy fingers. Fair she is, with a beauty not of earth, but she seemed to me less fair than Procris. Procris was ever in my thoughts, and in my dreams I breathed the name of Procris. Then the goddess cried angrily, 'You may keep your Procris. The day will come when you will wish you had never possessed her!'

"Diana had bestowed on Procris, who loved the hunt, Lælaps, the hound whom no wild beast can outrun, and this javelin which nothing can escape, as a token of our reconciliation. These she gave to me.

"Would you like to know the fate of this other present—the dog? When Œdipus had solved that riddle which none other could guess, and the Sphinx who invented it lay a mangled corpse, Themis left her not unavenged. Another plague was sent against Thebes, and a savage monster devoured both the peasants and their cattle. We, the youth of the district, came together and inclosed the fields with nets, but the monster with a light bound leaped over them and escaped. The dogs were loosed, and they followed, but it escaped them as easily as a winged bird. My dog Lælaps—a tempest for speed—was straining at the leash. Eagerly the bystanders begged me to unloose him. Scarcely had I done so when he was lost to our sight. A spear flies not more swiftly, nor pellets from a sling, nor arrows from a Cretan bow. I watched from the hill-top this marvelous chase. At one time the wild beast seemed caught, at another to have clean escaped as it dodged and doubled, so that its enemy could not run full tilt at it. I was now thinking to use my javelin; and while fitting my fingers to the thongs, turned my eyes one moment from the quarry. When I looked again, I beheld a still more wonderful sight. There were two marble statues in the middle of the plain; you would fancy one was flying and the other barking in pursuit. No doubt some god desired that both should remain unconquered in this test of speed."

"But why should you complain of the javelin?" interrupted Phocus. "What fault is there in it?"

"O Son of Æacus," replied Cephalus, "my sorrows have yet to be told. For years I was blest in my wife, and she was happy in her husband. None, not even Jupiter himself, could have come between us, nor could Venus have drawn me from my love.

"When the sun was just gilding the hill-tops I was wont to go into the woods to hunt. I wanted no servants, nor horses, nor even keen-scented hounds with me; my sure javelin was enough for me. When I was sated with the slaughter of wild beasts I would betake myself to some cool shady spot, and enjoy the breeze coming gently over the cool valleys, and so refreshing in the noontide heat. While I awaited the rising of the breeze, I would sing a sort of refrain: 'Come, gentle Aura, kindly Aura; come to my breast; with thy cool sweetness refresh me, parched by the heat!' Perhaps, as cruel fate might have prompted me, I added other words, such as 'Sweet Aura, thou art my delight! Thou dost love and refresh me; thou makest me to seek woods and lonely haunts, and thy breath is pleasant on my face.' Some busybody must have heard me; and, imagining that I was in love with some nymph named Aura, carried the story to my wife.

"Love is only too ready to believe the worst. When Procris heard the tale she fell down fainting with sudden grief. Then coming to, she bemoaned her wretched fate, and wept for my faithlessness. She believed that this Aura was a maiden and a rival. Yet, hoping she might be deceived, she would not pass sentence unless she beheld my treachery with her own eyes.

"Next morning, at sunrise, I went out as usual to the woods, and being successful in the chase, lay down to rest myself, murmuring, 'Come to me, sweetest Aura.' Methought I heard a faint far-distant moan, but I heeded not and said again, 'Come, Aura, come!' A rustling of leaves startled me, and, thinking it was a wild beast, I let fly my javelin.

"Alas! it was Procris. Crying, 'Ah, wretched me!' she received the dart in her breast. I ran to the sound of her voice. To my distraction I found her dying, her garments stained with blood, and drawing her own gift, that too-sure javelin, out of her wound. I lifted up her body, dearer to me than my own, in my guilty arms, and bound up the cruel wounds with strips torn from my garments; and I tried vainly to stanch the blood, begging her not to die and leave me desolate.

"With gasping breath and broken utterance she whispered in my ear: 'I beseech thee, by the gods above, and by our marriage vows, and by my love even now enduring though I die, not to let that light-of-love, Aura, possess the heart that once was mine!' Then, at last, I saw the mistake of the name, and that her fears were about a shadow. I reassured her. But what availed it? She was sinking, and her little strength faded away with her life-blood. So long as she could look at anything, she gazed on me, and breathed out with a smile her unhappy life. But I like to fancy she died free from care, and with a look of content.

"I still cherish her memory. No mortal maid has since possessed my heart. So have I grown old in the service of Diana, looking to the day which cannot now be long distant when we can meet and renew our love in the Elysian fields."