Gateway to the Classics: A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by James Baldwin
A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin

The Golden Apple

A FTER the evening meal had been eaten and the cave-hall set in order, the lads brought armloads of dry sticks and twigs, and threw them upon the fire. And the flame leaped up, and shone upon all around with a ruddy glow; and the great cavern was emptied of gloom, and was so filled with light and warmth that it seemed a fit place for joy and pleasure. Old Cheiron sat upon his high couch like a king upon his throne; and the five comely lads, with Odysseus, sat before him, while Phemius the bard stood leaning against the wall. After Cheiron had played a brief melody upon his harp, and the boys had sung a pleasant song, the wise old master thus began:—

"There is a cavern somewhere on Mount Pelion larger by far and a thousand times more beautiful than this; but its doorway is hidden to mortals, and but few men have ever stood beneath its vaulted roof. In that cavern the ever-living ones who oversee the affairs of men, once held high carnival; for they had met there at the marriage-feast of King Peleus, and the woods and rocks of mighty Pelion echoed with the sound of their merry making. But wherefore should the marriage-feast of a mortal be held in such a place and with guests so noble and so great? I will tell you.

"After Peleus had escaped from the plot which King Acastus had laid for him, he dwelt long time with me; for he feared to go down upon the plain lest the men of Iolcos should seize him by order of Acastus, or the folk of Phthia should kill him in revenge for old Eurytion's death. But the days seemed long to him, thus shut out from fellowship with men, and the sun seemed to move slowly in the heavens; and often he would walk around to the other side of the mountain, and sitting upon a great rock, he would gaze for long hours upon the purple waters of the sea. One morning as thus he sat, he saw the sea nymph Thetis come up out of the waves and walk upon the shore beneath him. Fairer than a dream was she,—more beautiful than any picture of nymph or goddess. She was clad in a robe of sea-green silk, woven by the Naiads in their watery grottos; and there was a chaplet of pearls upon her head, and sandals of sparkling silver were upon her feet.


The Silver-footed Thetis Rising from the Waves

"As Peleus gazed upon this lovely creature, he heard a voice whispering in his ear. It was the voice of Pallas Athené.

" 'Most luckless of mortal men,' she said, 'there is recompense in store for those who repent of their wrong-doing, and who, leaving the paths of error, turn again to the road of virtue. The immortals have seen thy sorrow for the evil deeds of thy youth, and they have looked with pity upon thee in thy misfortunes. And now thy days of exile and of sore punishment are drawing to an end. Behold the silver-footed Thetis, most beautiful of the nymphs of the sea, whom even the immortals have wooed in vain! She has been sent to this shore, to be won and wedded by thee.'

"Peleus looked up to see the speaker of these words, but he beheld only a blue cloud resting above the mountain-top; he turned his eyes downward again, and, to his grief, the silver-footed Thetis had vanished in the waves. All day he sat and waited for her return, but she came not. When darkness began to fall he sought me in my cave-hall, and told me what he had seen and heard; and I taught him how to win the sea-nymph for his bride.

"So when the sun again gilded the crags of Pelion, brave Peleus hid himself among the rocks close by the sea-washed shore, and waited for the coming of the silver-footed lady of the sea. In a little time she rose, beautiful as the star of morning, from the waves. She sat down upon the beach, and dallied with her golden tresses, and sang sweet songs of a happy land in the depths of the sounding sea. Peleus, bearing in mind what I had taught him, arose from his hiding-place, and caught the beauteous creature in his arms. In vain did she struggle to leap into the waves. Seven times she changed her form as he held her: by turns she changed into a fountain of water, into a cloud of mist, into a burning flame, and into a senseless rock. But Peleus held her fast; and she changed then into a tawny lion, and then into a tall tree, and lastly she took her own matchless form again.

"And Peleus held the lovely Thetis by the hand, and they walked long time together upon the beach, while the birds sang among the leafy trees on Pelion's slopes, and the dolphins sported in the sparkling waters at their feet; and Peleus wooed the silver-footed lady, and won her love, and she promised to be his bride. Then the immortals were glad; and they fitted up the great cavern on Mount Pelion for a banquet hall, and made therein a wedding feast, such as was never seen before. The vaulted roof of the cavern was decked with gems which shone like the stars of heaven; a thousand torches, held by lovely mountain nymphs, flamed from the niches in the high walls; and upon the door of polished marble, tables for ten thousand guests were ranged.

"When the wedding-feast was ready, all those who live on high Olympus, and all the immortals who dwell upon the earth, came to rejoice with King Peleus and his matchless bride; and they brought rich presents for the bridegroom, such as were never given to another man. They gave him a suit of armor, rich and fair, a wonder to behold, which lame Hephaestus with rare skill had wrought and fashioned. Poseidon bestowed on him the deathless horses, Balios and Xanthos, and a deftly-wrought chariot with trimmings of gold. And I, one of the least of the guests, gave him an ashen spear which I had cut on Pelion's top, and fashioned with my own hands.

"At the table sat Zeus, the father of gods and men; and his wife, the white-armed Here; and smile-loving Aphrodite; and gray-eyed Pallas Athené; and all the wisest and the fairest of the immortals. The Nereides, nymphs of the sea, danced in honor of Thetis their sister; and the Muses sang their sweetest songs; and silver-bowed Apollo played upon the lyre. The Fates, too, were there: sad Clotho, twirling her spindle; unloving Lachesis, with wrinkled lips ready to speak the fatal word; and pitiless Atropos, holding in her hand the unsparing shears. And around the table passed the youthful and joy-giving Hebe, pouring out rich draughts of nectar for the guests.

"Yet there was one among all the immortals who had not been invited to the wedding; it was Eris, the daughter of War and Hate. Her scowling features, and her hot and hasty manners, were ill-suited to grace a feast where all should be mirth and gladness; yet in her evil heart she planned to be avenged for the slight which had been put upon her. While the merry-making was at its height, and the company were listening to the music from Apollo's lyre, she came unseen into the hall, and threw a golden apple upon the table. No one knew whence the apple came; but on it were written these words, 'For the Fairest.'

" 'To whom does it belong?' asked Zeus, stroking his brows in sad perplexity.

"The music ceased, and mirth and jollity fled at from the banquet. The torches, which lit up the scene, flickered and smoked; the lustre of the gems in the vaulted roof was dimmed; dark clouds canopied the great hall: for Discord had taken her place at the table, uninvited and unwelcome though she was.

" 'The apple belongs to me,' said Here, trying to snatch it; 'for I am the queen, and gods and men honor me as having no peer on earth.'

" 'Not so!' cried white-armed Aphrodite. 'With me dwell Love and Joy; and not only do gods and men sing my praises, but all nature rejoices in my presence. The apple is mine, and I will have it!'

"Then Athené joined in the quarrel. 'What is it to be a queen,' said she, 'if at the same time one lacks that good temper which sweetens life? What is it to have a handsome form and face, while the mind is uncouth and ill-looking? Beauty of mind is better than beauty of face; for the former is immortal, while the latter fades and dies. Hence no one has a better right than I to be called the fairest.'

"Then the strife spread among the guests in the hall, each taking sides with the goddess that he loved best; and, where peace and merriment had reigned, now hot words and bitter wrangling were heard. And had not Zeus bidden them keep silence, thus putting an end to the quarrel, all Pelion would have been rent, and the earth shaken to its centre by the mêlée that would have followed.

" 'Let us waste no words over this matter,' he said. 'It is not for the immortals to say who of their number is most beautiful. But on the slopes of Mount Ida, far across the sea, the fairest of the sons of men—Paris, the son of Trojan Priam—keeps his flocks; let him judge who is fairest, and let the apple be hers to whom he gives it.'

"Then Hermes, the swift-footed messenger, arose, and led the three goddesses over sea and land to distant Ida, where Paris, with no thought of the wonderful life which lay before him, piped on his shepherd's reeds, and tended his flock of sheep."

Here Cheiron paused in his story; and the five lads, who had heard it oftentimes before, bade him a kind good-night, and withdrew into an inner chamber to pass the hours in sleep. When more wood had been thrown upon the fire, and the flames leaped up high and bright towards the roof of the cave, Odysseus and Phemius sat down again before the wise old master, and asked him to finish the tale which he had begun.

"But first tell us," said Odysseus, "about that Paris, who was to award the golden apple to the one whom he should deem the fairest."

Then Cheiron smiled, and went on thus with his story:—

"On the other side of the sea there stands a city, rich and mighty, the like of which there is none in Hellas. There an old man, named Priam, rules over a happy and peace-loving people. He dwells in a great palace of polished marble, on a hill overlooking the plain; and his granaries are stored with corn, and his flocks and herds are pastured on the hills and mountain slopes behind the city. Many sons has King Priam; and they are brave and noble youths, well worthy of such a father. The eldest of these sons is Hector, who, the Trojans hope, will live to bring great honor to his native land. Just before the second son was born, a strange thing troubled the family of old Priam. The queen had dreamed that her babe had turned into a firebrand, which burned up the walls and the high towers of Troy, and left but smouldering ashes where once the proud city stood. She told the king her dream; and when the child was born, they called a soothsayer, who could foresee the mysteries of the future, and they asked him what the vision meant.

" 'It means,' said he, 'that this babe, if he lives, shall be a firebrand in Troy, and shall turn its walls and its high towers into heaps of smouldering ashes.'

" 'But what shall be done with the child, that he may not do this terrible thing?" asked Priam, greatly sorrowing, for the babe was very beautiful.

" 'Do not suffer that he shall live,' answered the soothsayer.

"But Priam, the gentlest and most kind-hearted of men, could not bear to harm the babe. So he called Archelaus, his master shepherd, and bade him take the helpless child into the thick woods, which grow high up on the slopes of Ida, and there to leave him alone. The wild beasts that roam among those woods, he thought, would doubtless find him, or, in any case, he could not live long without care and nourishment; and thus the dangerous brand would be quenched while yet it was scarcely a spark.

"The shepherd did as he was bidden, although it cost his heart many a sharp pang thus to deal barbarously with the innocent. He laid the smiling infant, wrapped in its broidered tunic, close by the foot of an oak, and then hurried away that he might not hear its cries. But the Dryads, who haunt the woods and groves, saw the babe, and pitied its helplessness, and cared for it so that it did not die. Some brought it yellow honey from the stores of the wild bees; some fed it with milk from the white goats that pastured on the mountain side; and others stood as sentinels around it, guarding it from the wolves and bears. Thus five days passed, and Archelaus the shepherd, who could not forget the babe, came cautiously to the spot to see if, mayhap, even its broidered cloak had been spared by the beasts. Sorrowful and shuddering he glanced toward the foot of the tree. To his surprise, the babe was still there; it looked up and smiled, and stretched its fat hands toward him. The shepherd's heart would not let him turn away the second time. He took the child in his arms, and carried it to his own humble home in the valley, where he cared for it and brought it up as his own son.

"The boy grew to be very tall and very handsome; and he was so brave, and so helpful to the shepherds around Mount Ida, that they called him Alexandros, or the helper of men; but his foster-father named him Paris. And as he tended his sheep in the mountain dells, he met Œnone, the fairest of the river-maidens, guileless and pure as the waters of the stream by whose banks she loved to wander. Day after day he sat with her in the shadow of her woodland home, and talked of innocence and beauty, and of a life of sweet contentment, and of love; and the maiden listened to him with wide-open eyes and a heart full of trustfulness and faith. Then, by and by, Paris and Œnone were wedded; and their little cottage in the mountain glen was the fairest and happiest spot in Ilios. The days sped swiftly by, and neither of them dreamed that any sorrow was in store for them; and to Œnone her shepherd-husband was all the world, because he was so noble and brave and handsome and gentle.

"One warm summer afternoon, Paris sat in the shade of a tree at the foot of Mount Ida, while his flocks were pasturing upon the hillside before him. The bees were humming lazily among the flowers; the cicadas were chirping among the leaves above his head; and now and then a bird twittered softly among the bushes behind him. All else was still, as if enjoying to the full the delicious calm of that pleasant day. Paris was fashioning a slender reed into a shepherd's flute; while Œnone, sitting in the deeper shadows of some clustering vines, was busy with some simple piece of needlework. A sound as of sweet music caused the young shepherd to raise his eyes. Before him stood the four immortals, Here, Athené, Aphrodite, and Hermes the messenger; their faces shone with a dazzling radiance, and they were fairer than any tongue can describe. At their feet rare flowers sprang up, crocuses and asphodels and white lilies; and the air was filled with the odor of orange blossoms. Paris, scarce knowing what he did, arose to greet them. No handsomer youth ever stood in the presence of beauty. Straight as a mountain pine was he; a leopard skin hung carelessly upon his shoulders; his head was bare, but his locks clustered round his temples in sunny curls, and formed fit framework for his fair brows.

"Then Hermes spoke first: 'Paris, we have come to seek thy help; there is strife among the folk who dwell on Mount Olympus. Here are Here, Athené, and Aphrodite, each claiming to be the fairest, and each clamoring for this prize, this golden apple. Now we pray that you will judge this matter, and give the apple to the one whom you may deem most beautiful.'

"Then Here began her plea at once: 'I know that I am the fairest,' she said, 'for I am queen, and mine it is to rule among gods and men. Give me the prize, and you shall have wealth, and a kingdom, and great glory; and men in after-times shall sing your praises.'

"And Paris was half tempted to give the apple, without further ado, to Here the proud queen. But gray-eyed Athené spoke: 'There is that, fair youth, which is better than riches or honor or great glory. Listen to me, and I will give thee wisdom and a pure heart; and thy life shall be crowned with peace, and sweetened with love, and made strong by knowledge. And though men may not sing of thee in after-times, thou shalt find lasting happiness in the answer of a good conscience towards all things.'

"Then Œnone whispered from her place among the leaves, 'Give the prize to Athené; she is the fairest.' And Paris would have placed the golden apple in her hand, had not Aphrodite stepped quickly forward, and in the sweetest, merriest tones, addressed him.

" 'You may look at my face, and judge for yourself as to whether I am fair,' said she, laughing, and tossing her curls. 'All I shall say is this: Give me the prize, and you shall have for your wife the most beautiful woman in the world.'

"The heart of Œnone stood still as Paris placed the apple in Aphrodite's hand; and a nameless dread came over her, as if the earth were sinking beneath her feet. But the next moment the blood came back to her cheeks, and she breathed free and strong again; for she heard Paris say, 'I have a wife, Œnone, who to me is the loveliest of mortals, and I care not for your offer; yet I give to you the apple, for I know that you are the fairest among the deathless ones who live on high Olympus.'

"On the very next day it happened that King Priam sat thoughtfully in his palace, and all his boys and girls—nearly fifty in number—were about him. His mind turned sadly to the little babe whom he had sent away, many years ago, to die alone on wooded Ida. And he said to himself, 'The child has been long dead, and yet no feast has been given to the gods that they may make his little spirit glad in the shadowy land of Hades. This must not be neglected longer. Within three days a feast must be made, and we will hold games in his honor.'

"Then he called his servants, and bade them go to the pastures on Mount Ida, and choose from the herds that were there the fattest and handsomest bull, to be given as a prize to the winner in the games. And he proclaimed through all Ilios, that on the third day there would be a great feast in Troy, and games would be held in honor of the little babe who had died twenty years before. Now, when the servants came to Mount Ida, they chose a bull for which Paris had long cared, and which he loved more than any other. And he would not let the beast be driven from the pasture until it was agreed that he might go to the city with it and contend in the games for the prize. But Œnone, the river-nymph, wept and prayed him not to go.

" 'Leave not the pleasant pasture lands of Ida, even for a day,' said she; 'for my heart tells me that you will not return.'

" 'Think not so, my fair one,' said Paris. 'Did not Aphrodite promise that the most beautiful woman in the world shall be my wife? And who is more beautiful than my own Œnone? Dry now your tears; for when I have won the prizes in the games I will come back to you, and never leave you again.'

"Then the grief of Œnone waxed still greater. 'If you will go,' she cried, 'then hear my warning! Long years shall pass ere you shall come again to wooded Ida, and the hearts which now are young shall grow old and feeble by reason of much sorrow. Cruel war and many dire disasters shall overtake you, and death shall be nigh unto you; and then Œnone, although long forgotten by you, will hasten to your side, to help and to heal and to forgive, that so the old love may live again. Farewell!'

"But Paris kissed his wife, and hastened, light of heart, to Troy. How could it be otherwise but that, in the games which followed, the handsome young shepherd should carry off all the prizes?

" 'Who are you?' asked the king.

" 'My name is Paris,' answered the shepherd, 'and I feed the flocks and herds on wooded Ida.'

"Then Hector, full of wrath because of his own failure to win a prize, came forward to dispute with Paris.

" 'Stand there, Hector,' cried old Priam; 'stand close to the young shepherd, and let us look at you!' Then turning to the queen, he asked, 'Did you ever see two so nearly alike? The shepherd is fairer and of slighter build, it is true; but they have the same eye, the same frown, the same smile, the same motion of the shoulders, the same walk. Ah, what if the young babe did not die after all?'

"Then Priam's daughter Cassandra, who has the gift of prophecy, cried out, 'Oh, blind of eye and heart, that you cannot see in this young shepherd the child whom you sent to sleep the sleep of death on Ida's wooded slopes!'

"And so it came about, that Paris was taken into his father's house, and given the place of honor which was his by right. And he forgot Œnone his fair young wife, and left her to pine in loneliness among the woods and in the narrow dells of sunny Ida."

By this time the fire had burned low upon the hearth, and Cheiron the master would fain have ended his talk. But Odysseus was anxious to hear more.

"To-morrow," said he, "we must go back to Iolcos, for perchance the ships of Peleus may then be ready to sail. So tell us, I pray you, yet more about that strange wedding feast in the cavern halls of Pelion."

"There is little more to tell," said the master. "After the feast, King Peleus went down with his bride into Phthia; and there his Myrmidons, who had waited so long for his coming, rallied around him, ready to help him in any undertaking. And they marched upon Iolcos, and entered the gates, carrying all before them; and they slew King Acastus, and set Peleus on his throne. Thus ended this hero's days of exile; and now for seven years he has ruled Iolcos and Phthia both wisely and well; yet, though you have found him at this season of the year in Iolcos, he loves best his old home of Phthia, where dwell his Myrmidons."

"Please tell me about his son, fair young Achilles, who is here in your hall," said Odysseus.

Cheiron answered briefly by telling how the young lad's mother, the sea nymph Thetis, had longed to make her son immortal; and how it was said that she each night threw him into the fire to purge away whatever mortal stains might cling to him; and how each day she anointed him with ambrosia, and sang him to sleep with sweet lullabies of the sea.

"But one night," added Cheiron, "King Peleus happened to see the babe lying in the fire; and in his fright he cried out, and snatched him from the coals. Then Thetis sorrowfully gave up her plan; and the boy was sent to me, that I might train him in all that goes to the making of a man. There are those who say that I feed the lad on the hearts of lions, and the marrow of bears and wild boars; and those may believe the story who wish to do so. But I have lived long enough to know that there are other and better ways of training up heroes, and fitting them for the strife of battle."

And thus the long talk with Cheiron, the wise master, ended; and Odysseus retired to his couch, and was soon dreaming of far-away Ithaca and of his anxious mother, who was even then hoping for his return.

The next morning the lad and his tutor went down the mountain; and, following the pathway which Jason had taken when he went to claim his birthright of Pelias, they came, in good time, back to Iolcos by the sea. There they found that a ship was just making ready to sail for Corinth; and bidding a hasty farewell to King Peleus, and to bold Echion, who still tarried there, they embarked, and were soon well on their way. The voyage was a long and hard one; but kind Athené favored them, and Poseidon gave them smooth waters and many pleasant days upon the sea. Nor were they delayed at Corinth; for they found waiting there a ship, which Laertes had sent out on purpose to meet them and bring them home. And so, before the autumn had closed, Odysseus, much wiser and stronger than he was when he departed, gazed with glad eyes once more upon the shores of sea-girt Ithaca.

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