NCE upon a time there ruled in Arcadian Tegea a proud-hearted king named Schnus. A tamer of horses was he, and a man mighty in the hunt and in battle. Above every other thing he loved danger and sport and all kinds of manly exercise. Indeed, these things were the passion of his life, and he despised all womenkind because they could take no part nor lot in them. And he wedded Clymene, a fair princess of a royal house, because he wished to raise up noble sons in his halls, who should ride and hunt with him, and carry on his name when he was dead. On his wedding day he swore a great oath, and called upon all the gods to witness it.
"Never," he swore in his pride, "shall a maid child live in my halls. If a maid is born to me, she shall die ere her eyes see the light, and the honour of my house shall rest upon my sons alone."
When a man swears an oath in his pride, he repents full oft in humility, and so it fell out now. For many a long year no child was born to him, and when at last he had hopes of an heir, the babe that was born was a maid. When he saw the child his heart was cut in two, and the pride of a father and the pride of his oath did battle within him for victory. The pride of his oath conquered, for he was afraid to break his word in the face of all his people. He hardened his heart, though he had held the babe in his arms, and its little hand with a birthmark above the wrist had closed about his finger trustfully, and gave orders that the child should be cast out upon the mountains to die of hunger and cold. So the babe was given to a servant, who bore it forth and left it on the slope of bleak Parthenius. But Fate made a mock of Schnus, of his pride and of his oath, for no other child, either man or maid, was born to him in his halls. All too late he repented of his folly, when he saw his hearth desolate and no children round his board, and knew that not only his name, but his race, was like to die with him, because of the rash oath which he had sworn.
Yet there was one who had pity on the babe, and whose heart was kinder than the heart of its own sire. When Artemis, the maiden goddess, saw the child cast forth to die, she was filled with anger against Schnus, and swore that it should live. For it was a fair child, and a maid after her own heart, and no young life ever called to her in vain for mercy. Wherefore she sent a she-bear to the place where the child lay, and softened the heart of the beast, so that she lifted it gently in her mouth and bore it to the cave where her own cubs lay hid. There she suckled it with her own young ones, and tended it night and day, till it grew strong and could walk, and the cave rang with its laughter as it played and gambolled with the young bears. When Artemis knew that the child was old enough to live without its foster-mother, she sent her nymphs to fetch it away, and when they bore it to her she was well pleased to find it fair and strong.
"Her name shall be Atalanta," she said to them. "She shall dwell on the mountains and in the woods of Arcadia, and be one of my band with you. A mighty huntress shall she be, and the swiftest of all mortals upon earth; and in time she shall return to her own fold and bring joy and sorrow to their hearts."
Thus it came to pass that Atalanta lived with the nymphs in the woodlands of Arcadia. They taught her to run and to hunt, and to shoot with bow and arrows, till soon the day came when she could do these things as well as any of their band. For the blood of her father ran hot in her veins; and not more easily does a young bird learn to fly than Atalanta learnt to love all manner of sport. So she came to womanhood in the heart of the hills, and as her form grew in height and strength, it grew too in beauty and grace. The light of the sunbeam lay hid in her hair, and the blue of the sky in her eyes, and all the rivers of Arcadia bathed her limbs and made them fresh and white. But she thought little of her beauty, or the power it might have over the hearts of men, for all her delight was in the hunt, and to follow Artemis, her mistress, over hill and over dale. Artemis loved her, and delighted to do her honour; and when the land of Calydon cried to her for mercy, because of the boar she had sent to ravage it in her wrath, she decreed that none but Atalanta should have the glory of that hunt. The tale of how she came to Calydon, and of how the boar was slain at last through her, I have told you before; and of how death came to Meleager, because he loved her, and would not let any man insult her while he stood idly by. By the fame of that hunt her name was carried far and wide through Hellas, so that when she came to the funeral games of Pelias there was no need to ask who she was. She ran in the foot race against the swiftest in the land, and won the prize so easily that when she reached the goal the first man had scarce passed the turning-point, though he was no sluggard to make a mock of. When the games were over, she went back to Arcadia without a tear or a sigh, but her face and her memory lived in the heart of many a man whose very name she had not known; and when presently the news went abroad that she would wed the man who could win her, they flocked from far and wide, because they loved her better than life; for they knew that the unsuccessful went forth to certain death.
The tale of how Atalanta went back to her own folk, and of how she was wooed and won, is as follows:
One day, when King Schnus had a great hunt in the forest on the edge of his domain, it chanced that Atalanta had come to those parts; and when she heard the blare of the bugles and the barking of the hounds, her heart leapt with joy. As a dog, when he hears the voice of his master, pricks up his ears and runs swiftly to meet him, so did Atalanta run swiftly through the woods when she heard the sound of bugles. Full often she joined a hunt on the uplands of Arcadia, and run with the hounds; and when the hunt was over she had fled back into the forest, away from those who had been fain for her to stay. For she loved the hunt but not the hunters; but, because she was a mortal and born of a mortal race, she did not flee from their eyes, as the woodland nymphs fled, but hunted with them for joy of the hunt, and left them when it pleased her. So now she joined the chase as the stag broke loose from cover, and her white fleet flashed in the sunlight as she followed the hounds across the open moorland. King Schnus, when he saw her, was glad.
"It is Atalanta, the maiden huntress," he cried. "See that she be treated with due courtesy, for she is the only woman on earth who is fit to look a man in the face."
And he rode eagerly after her. But the best horse in all that company was no match for Atalanta. Far ahead of them all she shot, like an arrow from the bow, and when at least the stag turned at bay in a pool, she was the first to reach him. When the rest had come up, and the huntsman had slain the stag, the king turned to her.
"Atalanta," he said, "the trophy of this chase is thine, and my huntsman shall bear the head of the stag whithersoever thou shalt bid him. In token of our esteem, I beg thee accept this ring. When thou lookest upon it, think kindly of an old man whose heart is lonely, and who would fain have a daughter like thee.
As he spoke he drew off a gold ring from his finger and held it towards her; the tears stood in his eyes and his hand shook as he looked on her fair young form, and remembered the babe he had cast out on the the mountains to die. If she had lived she would have been of an age with Atalanta, and perchance as fair and as strong as she; and his heart was bitter against himself for the folly of his oath.
When Atalanta heard his words, she had a mind at first to refuse his gift. Many a man before had offered her gifts, and she had refused them every one; for she had no wish to be beholden to any man. But when she saw the eyes of the old king dim with tears, and how his hand shook as he held out the ring, her heart was softened, and yearned with a strange yearning towards him. Coming forward, she knelt at his feet and took the ring, and held his hand and kissed it.
"May the gods grant the prayer of thy heart, sire," she said, "and give thee a daughter like unto me, but fairer and more wise than I!"
As he looked down on the hand that held his own the old king trembled more violently than before, for above the wrist was a birthmark like the birthmark above the wrist of the babe he had cast forth to die. And he knew that he made no mistake, for that mark had lived in his mind as though it had been branded with red-hot steel.
"Atalanta," he said, "the gods have heard thy prayer. This is not the first time thy fingers have closed about mine."
"What meanest thou, sire?" she asked.
"As many years ago as the span of thy young life," he said, "I held in my arms a new-born babe, the child that the gods had given me, and its little hand with a birthmark above the wrist closed about my finger trust-fully. But because of my foolish pride I hardened my heart. I cast away the gift of the gods and sent the child to die upon the mountains. But the birthmark on its wrist was branded on my brain so that I could not forget it. Never till this day have I seen that mark again, and now I see it on thy wrist, my child."
He bowed his head as he spoke, and the tears from his eyes fell upon her hand, which lay in his as she knelt before him.
"Oh, my father!" she cried, and bent forward and kissed his hand.
"Oh, my father!" she cried.
When he found that she did not turn from him, though she knew what he had done, he was more deeply moved than before.
"Atalanta," he said, "when I cast thee forth to die, I gave back to the gods the life they had given me, and now I have no right to claim it again. Yet would thy presence be a sunshine in my halls if thou wert to come back to me, my child."
Thus did the call come to Atalanta to return to her own folk, and the choice lay before her. On the one side was her free life in the forest, with Artemis and her nymphs, the hunt, the fresh air, and all the things that she loved; on the other was life within the walls of a city, and the need to bow her head to the customs and the ways of men. Her heart misgave her when she thought of it.
"My lord," she said, "will a young lion step into the cage of his own free will, think you?"
The old king bowed his head at her words.
"Alas! what other answer could I look for?" he said. "I thank the gods that they have shown me thy fair face this day. Perchance, when we hunt again in these parts, thou wilt join us for love of the chase. Till then, my child, farewell."
With trembling hands he raised her from her knees, and kissed her on the forehead. Then he signed to his men to lead forward his horse, and mounted and rode sadly home through the forest with his company. And Atalanta shaded her eyes and stood watching them till they disappeared from sight. When they had gone, she sighed, and turned and went upon her way. But her eyes were blind and her ears were deaf to the sights and sounds she loved so well, and that night she tossed restlessly upon her couch of moss. For before her eyes was the figure of an old man bowed with sorrow, and in her ear his voice pleaded, trembling with longing and love.
"Thy presence would be as sunshine in my halls if thou wert to come back to me, my child."
In the dawn she rose up from her couch, and bathed in a stream close by, and gathered up her shining hair in a coil about her head. Then she put on her sandals and a fresh white tunic, slung her quiver about her shoulders, and bow in hand went forth through the forest. Looking neither to the right nor to the left, she went on her way till she came to the white road that led to the city. Then she turned and looked back at the forest.
"Dear trees and woods," she said, "farewell, and ye nymphs that dwell in the streams and dance on the green sward of the mountains. When I have trodden the white road and gone up to the city, I can live with you no more. As for thee, great Artemis, who saved me in the beginning, I will be thy servant for ever, and dwell a maiden all my days, and a lover of the hunt."
She leant her head against a tree close by, and the tears stood in her eyes. It seemed that the breeze bore her words on its wings, for she heard a sigh from the forest, and the waters cried out to her, "Atalanta, come back, come back!"
But she closed her ears, and stepped out bravely on the white highway, and went up into the city. The people as they saw her pass marvelled greatly at her beauty, and whispered on to the other, "Surely it is Atalanta, the king's daughter. What doth she here?"
For the tale of how King Schnus had found his child, and of how she had refused to come home with him, had spread like wildfire through the city; so that when they saw her, they knew full well who she must be. She took no heed of them at all, but went straight forward on her way till she came to the gate of the palace. The gate stood open, and without knocking or calling she passed in, and went across the echoing court and beneath the portico into the great hall, as one who comes by night. When she had entered the hall, she stopped and looked about her. At first all seemed silent and deserted, for the folk had gone their several ways for the work of the day; but at length she spied an old man sitting on a carved chair in one of the alcoves between the pillars. It was the king, her father. He sat with his head upon his hand and his eyes downcast upon the floor, and his face was sad and full of longing, as of one who dreams sweet dreams which he knows will not come true. Gently she drew near him, and thanked the gods who had timed her coming so that she should find him alone. And she went and knelt at his feet. The old man gazed for a moment in her face, as though he did not see her; then he started from his chair and laid his hand upon her shoulder.
"Atalanta!" he cried.
"My father," she said, "I have come back to thee."
Then he gathered her up in his arms.
"Oh, my child, my child!" he said. "The gods are kind beyond my desert."
"Thy voice cried out to me in the night-time," she said, "and I could not shut my heart to thy pleading. The call of the free earth was strong, but the call of my blood was stronger."
Thus did Atalanta come back to her own folk, and bring joy to the heart of her father and the mother who had never held her in her arms. A great feast was held in the palace in her honour, and through all the city the people rejoiced because of her. For she was a fair princess of whom any land might be proud, and her fame had spread through the length and breadth of Hellas. Indeed, as soon as it was known who she was, and how she had left the mountains to come and live with her own kin, suitors flocked from far and wide to seek her hand in marriage. But she treated them one and all with scorn, and vowed that she would never wed. At first her father smiled upon her, and looked on her refusal to wed as the sign of a noble nature, that was not to be won for the asking of the first chance-comers. So he gathered about him the noblest princes in the land in the hope that among them all there would be one who could win her heart. But the months passed by, and still she vowed that she would never wed. All her delight was in running and hunting, and to ride by her father's side. As for the young princes, she liked them full well for companions in sport, but as soon as they spoke of love and marriage she would turn her back upon them. At length the king grew anxious.
"Surely, my child," he said, "among all these princes there is one whom thou couldst love?"
"I shall never love any man but thee, my father," she replied.
"Yet all the hope of our race lies upon thee, Atalanta," he said. "If thou wilt not wed, our race will die."
"Our race died on the day on which thou didst cast me forth on the mountains," she answered. "If I have lived, it is no thanks to thee or to any of my people, but my life is hers who saved me on that day."
"What meanest thou?" said the king.
"When I left the forest and came back to thee I vowed a vow to Artemis, who saved me in the beginning. I said, 'I will be thy servant for ever, and dwell a maiden all my days and a lover of the hunt.' My life belongs to her, and not to my race, not to any son of man."
"We vow rash vows in ignorance, Atalanta," said the king, as he remembered the oath he had sworn on his wedding-day, "and Fate makes a mock of us, and turns our nay to yea."
But Atalanta laughed at his words.
"When Fate mocks at me," she said, "it will be time enough for me to wed and turn my nay to yea."
Nothing that he could say would persuade her to go back from her resolve. But still he reasoned with her night and day, till at length she grew so wearied of the matter that she bethought of a plan that would rid her of all her suitors.
"My father," she said, "I will wed any man who shall ask my hand, if he will also fulfil one condition."
"My child," cried the father, "I knew that in the end thou wouldst listen to reason. Tell me thy condition, that I may spread it abroad among those who are suing for thy hand."
"Tell them," she said, "that I will wed the first man among them who will run a race with me. If he win, I will be his bride, but if he lose, he must die."
The king's face fell when he heard her words.
"Surely thou speakest in mockery, Atalanta," he said. "No man in all the world can run as swiftly as thou canst, and they know it. Thou wilt drive thy suitors from thee; or if any be foolhardy enough to run with thee, they will run to a certain death."
"No man will run to a certain death, my father," she answered. "When they know that to sigh for me is to sigh for death, they will go back to their own folk, and I shall be troubled with suitors no more."
Herein she spoke in ignorance, and knew not the fatal power of her beauty upon the hearts of men. And her father sighed at her words. Yet he thought within himself,
"Perchance there is more in her words than meets the ear. The deep sea is easier to fathom than the mind of a woman. Either there is one among her suitors whom she favours above the rest, and she will see to it that he is the first to run with her, and will bridle her speed and let him win; or else, Heaven knows, some god has put this whim in her heart, and will send a champion we know not, who can run faster than the fastest, and he will outspeed her and make her his bride. She will never let men die because of her."
But herein he too thought in ignorance, and knew not how his own pride and stubbornness lived again in Atalanta, so that she would abide by her word, though it brought grief to herself and death to the others. So he published abroad among the suitors the condition she had made. When they heard it there was a great consternation among them, and they consulted together as to what they should do, and some sent a deputation to her to find out the meaning of her words.
"Lady," they asked, "when thou speakest of death thou speakest perchance of parables. Those who run in the race with thee and are outstripped must give up all hope of thee, and look upon thy face no more. And this would be death indeed to them that love thee."
But she laughed in their faces.
"If you would hear parables," she said, "go to the oracle at Delphi. I am no raving priestess to utter words that walk two ways at once. He who courts death may race with me at daybreak, and at sunset he shall drink the poison-cup without fail, and look neither on my face again nor the face of any living thing. Have I spoken plainly now?"
The next day there was a great confusion in the halls of King Schnus. There was shouting and bustling, and attendants ran this way and that. Chariots clattered through the gateway and drew up in the court, and baggage was piled high behind the horses. And Atalanta laughed aloud at the success of her scheme; for suitor after suitor came and kissed her hand and bade her farewell. They loved her much, but they loved life better, and were content to go home and find mates who, though less fair, were less ferocious, and were like to look upon their lords with eyes more lowly and obedient than Atalanta.
That night the gathering about the board was scantier than it had been for many a long day. Yet a few of the suitors remained, and seemed in no haste to be gone. Day after day passed by, and each night Atalanta said within herself,
"To-morrow they will surely go. They dwell in distant towns, and they are waiting for a favourable day for their journey."
But favourable days came and went, and still they stayed in the halls of King Schnus. At last Atalanta could hide the dread in her heart no longer.
"How long will it be, my father," she asked, "ere we are troubled no more with strangers in our halls?"
"If thou wilt wed one of them, we shall be troubled with the rest no more," he replied.
"They know full well I can wed no man of them, because of the condition I have made," she said.
"They are waiting for thee to fulfil thy condition," said the king.
Then Atalanta herself went and pleaded with them.
"My friends," she said, "I pray you to be guided by me. The gods have not fashioned me after the manner of womenkind, and I cannot give myself nor my love to any man. Look upon me as one of yourselves, I pray you, and think not to win me in marriage."
But they replied, "Lady, thou hast given the condition of thy marriage, and we are waiting to fulfil it."
"But my condition means certain death," she cried.
"Nothing in this life is certain," they said, "save death in the end. If it come soon or late, what matter? For thy sake we are willing to face it now."
Thus was she forced to keep her word, and the lists were made ready for the race, and the lots were cast among the suitors as to which of them should be the first to run against her. In the early morning, before the sun was strong, the race was run, and all the city crowded to the course to watch it. The man ran well and bravely, but his speed was as a child's play to Atalanta. She put forth her strength like a greyhound that is content to run for a while before the horses, but when he scents a hare, can leave them behind. Even so did Atalanta run, and came in cool and fresh at the goal, whilst her rival ran in hot and panting behind her.
Thus did it come to pass that the first man drank the poison-cup because of his love for Atalanta. With a smiling face did he drink it, as a man drinks at a feast.
"Farewell, lady," he said; "grieve not for me. With open eyes I chose my fate. I ran for the sake of love and beauty, and I have won death. Such is ever the lot of the nameless many. They fight for the glory of the man whose name shall live. Good luck to my rival!"
And now a time of darkness and mourning fell upon the land, and many a day in the year the city was hung with black for the sake of some noble suitor who had chosen death rather than life without Atalanta. And Atalanta's heart was sore within her, because of the rash condition she had made in her ignorance. When she would fain have recalled her words it was too late, for the suitors bound her to her promise.
"Either give thyself of thine own free will to one of us, or else let us take our chance of winning thee or death," they said.
And so she was forced to run with them. For in her heart she knew that even death was happier for a man than to win her without her love.
Thus were the words of Artemis fulfilled when she said, "In time she shall return to her own folk, and bring joy and sorrow to their hearts."
One day it chanced that a stranger came to the city on a morning that a race was to be run. The night before he had slept in a village near by, and the people had told him the tale of Atalanta, and how on the morrow another suitor was to run to his death. But he scoffed at their words.
"No man would run to certain death," he said, "were the maid as fair as Aphrodite."
"Go and see for thyself," they replied. "Soon we shall hear that thou too wilt run in the race."
"Never," he said; "no woman can cheat my life from me."
But they shook their heads unconvinced.
"Many before thee have spoken likewise," said they, "and yet they have run."
"If I run, I will run to win," he answered.
"Can a snail outstrip a deer?" they asked.
"It might so chance," said he.
"Thou art mad," they cried.
"Better to be mad on earth than sane in Hades," he replied.
But they shook their heads the more, and tapped wisely with their fingers on their foreheads, to show that he was mad and spoke at random.
"Well, well," he said, with a laugh, "we shall see what we shall see."
The next morning he set forth early for the city, and, mingling with the crowd, he made his way to the race-course, and found for himself a place where he could watch the whole sight with ease. The race was run and ended as it always ended; and once again the city was hung with black. But in the mind of the stranger an image remained which had not been there before—the image of a maid whose white feet flashed in the sunlight and her tunic swung to and from as a flag swings in the breeze.
"Great Heracles!" he thought within himself, "to run shoulder to shoulder with her for a moment, even in a race for death, might be worth the while after all. I will make myself known at the palace, and see what the gods will give me."
For some days he lay hid in the city, till he thought the time was ripe for him to go up to the palace of the king. Then he went for a walk along the highway, and when he was covered with dust and grime, he returned to the city and made his way at once to the palace. At the door of the gateway he knocked, and the old porter came out to ask his will.
"I am come from a distant land," he said, "and to-morrow I would journey yet further on my way. I pray thee to crave hospitality for one night for me from the steward of this house, whoe'er he be. I am a king's son, and worthy to sit at any man's table."
The porter cast a doubtful eye on the travel-worn clothes of the stranger. It seemed unlikely that a king's son would go on a distant journey with no body-servant and no horse or baggage. The he looked in his clear blue eyes, which gazed back at him as innocent as a child's, and he saw that for all his sorry raiment he was by no means ill-favoured, but held himself well and proudly. So he opened the door and led him across the court.
"Well, well," he muttered in his beard, "great folk have strange whims in these days. Our king must needs slay his daughter, because she is a maid, and she needs slay her suitors, because they are men. After that this fellow may well be, as he says, a king's son, who, because he has a palace and plenty, must needs tramp over the face of the earth and beg his bread. Praise be to the gods who put lowly blood in my veins and sense in my head, else had it been better for the gate to keep itself than to have me for a guardian."
Then he cast another look over his shoulder at the young man behind.
"At any rate, for one night he can do no harm," he muttered.
"What didst thou say, father?" asked the stranger.
"I said that for one night thou couldst do no harm," replied the old man.
"On the contrary," said the stranger with a laugh, "in one night I hope to do more good to this house than thou hast done in all thy life."
"The young have ever a good conceit of themselves," said the porter. "Thou art not like to keep this gate, winter and summer, day and night, for close on three-score years, as I have done, young man."
"On the other hand," said the stranger, "thou art not like to marry the king's daughter within the year, and have the city hung with red instead of black in thine honour, as I am like to do."
"Sir," said the old man, "I know my place too well—"
"—and love thy life too much to aspire to the hand of the princess. Is that not so?"
"Mayhap," said the old man, and shut his mouth with a snap. To all further remarks which the stranger made he answered with a grunt. He took him into the palace and delivered him into the hands of the steward. As he turned to go back to his post, the young man clapped his hand upon his shoulder.
"Good luck to thee and thy gate," he said. "When I come through with the hand of the princess in mine, perchance thou wilt look upon me with greater favour than now."
"Be warned in time, young man," said the porter, "and tarry not over long in this palace, but go forth on thy journey in the morning, as thou hadst a mind to do in the beginning. Those who tarry too long are apt to go through the gate with nought but a cake in their hand."
This he said, meaning the cake which was put in the hands of the dead for them to give to Cerberus, the watch-dog of Hades.
"Fear not for that," said the stranger; "I had as lief go empty-handed."
Thereupon he turned to the steward, who welcomed him sadly to the halls of King Schnus. All strangers were looked upon askance in those days, lest they came as suitors for the hand of Atalanta, and wished to add to those who had run in the fatal race. When he heard that the young man would depart on the morrow on his journey he was glad, and gave him water to wash with and a change of raiment, and showed him his place at the board, without so much as asking his name. When Atalanta saw a stranger at the board her heart sank within her, and she kept her eyes turned away, as though she had not seen him, for she made sure that he too had come to run in the race with her. It chanced that night that the company was scanty, and no man talked in private to this neighbour, but the conversation leapt from one end of the board to the other, as each one took his share in it and said his say. The stranger, too, took his part with the rest of them, nowise abashed; and so shrewd were his words, and so full of wit, that soon he had a smile upon the face of each one at the table. For many a long day the talk had not been so merry nor the laughter so loud at the table of King Schnus. Atalanta, too, forgot her constraint, and talked and laughed freely with the stranger; and he answered her back, as though it had been man to man, and showed no more deference to her than to the others of the company.
When the meal was over, the king approached the stranger, and Atalanta stood beside him.
"Sir," said the king, "thy name and country are still hid from us, but we are grateful for thy coming, and would be fain for thee to stay as long as it shall please thee."
"I thank thee, sire," said the stranger, "but I am bound by a strange vow. I may not reveal my name, nor accept hospitality for more than one night from any man, till I come to a house where none other than the king's daughter shall promise me her hand in marriage. From the tales I have heard in the neighbouring country, I have learnt that I may not hope to end my vow beneath this roof—though indeed," he said, turning to Atalanta, "I would fain press my suit if there were any chance of success."
But Atalanta threw back her head at his words.
"Thou has doubtless heard the condition," she said, "by the fulfilment of which alone a man may win my hand."
"Alas, sir!" said the king, "I would press no man to try his luck in that venture."
"Since that is so," said the stranger, "I will go forth once more upon my journey at break of day, and see what luck the gods will give me. I thank thee for thy kindly hospitality this night, and beg thee to excuse me. I have travelled far, and would fain rest now, as I must go a long distance ere I can rest again."
Thereupon he took his leave of King Schnus and his daughter. But she, for all her pride, could not forget the man who seemed to bid her farewell with so light a heart. He was well favoured, but it was not because he was well favoured, or because he had a ready tongue, that she thought on him. Indeed, when she asked herself why she should remember one who by now had doubtless lost all memory of her, she could find no answer. As she tossed on her couch with a troubled mind, she determined that before he left the palace on the morrow she would have some speech with him.
"He thinks no more of me than of a stone upon wayside," she said within herself, "wherefore I can do him no wrong by letting him speak with me again before he goes."
It was her custom to rise early in the morning, before the rest of the household was stirring, and to go forth alone into the woods; and it was the lot of one of the slaves to rouse himself betimes to give her food ere she went, so that when she appeared, as was her wont, he thought nothing of it. The stranger had risen even earlier than she, and the slave was waiting upon him. When Atalanta saw him, her heart gave a sudden thrill, for she had not looked to see him so soon.
"Good-morrow, sir," she said. "It is not often I have a companion when I break my fast."
Then she turned to the slave.
"Thou mayest get thee back to thy bed," she said, "and sleep out thy sleep in peace. I will see to the wants of our guest and speed him on his way."
The slave, nothing loth, departed. He was well used to strange commands from his mistress; and, moreover, there was no need to invite him twice to return to his couch.
Thereupon Atalanta sat down at the board beside the stranger, and they fell to with all the appetite of youth and health; and as they ate they laughed and joked, and talked of strange lands they both had seen and adventures that had befallen them. In the space of one half-hour they were as good friends as though they had known each other all their lives, and suitors who had sat at her father's board day after day were much more strangers to Atalanta than this man, who had craved but one night's hospitality.
When they had finished their meal the stranger rose.
"I must bid thee farewell, lady," he said.
"Nay, not yet," she replied; I will set thee on thy way, and show thee a road through the forest that will bring thee to the city thou seekest. I know every track and path as well as the wild deer know them."
He tried to dissuade her, but she would not listen, and led him out from the palace by a side-gate, which she unbarred with her own hands. Down through the sleeping streets they went, where the shadows of the houses lay long upon the ground, and out across the open downs into the shade of the forest. The dew gleamed like jewels on the leaves, as here and there the slanting rays of the sun shone through the trees, and above their heads the lark sang gaily in the bright summer sky. Yet they walked silently side by side, as though, in spite of the brightness of the day, sorrow and not joy were sitting in their hearts; and all their gay talk and laughter of the early morning was dead. At length they came to a broad track that crossed the path they were in, and Atalanta stopped short and pointed to the right.
"From here," she said, "thou canst not miss thy way. Follow the track till it lead thee to the high-road, and when thou strikest the high-road, turn to the left, and thou wilt come to the city thou seekest."
Then she held out her hand to him.
"I must bid thee farewell," she said, "and good luck to the ending of thy vow."
"Lady," he said, and took her hand in his," if thou wilt, thou canst release me now from my vow."
But she drew her hand away sharply and tossed back her head.
"Many kings have daughters besides King Schnus," she said, "and any one of them could release thee from thy vow as well as I."
"Atalanta," he said, "no king's daughter save thee shall ever release me from my vow. That which laughter and our converse last night and this morning strove to hide, our silence, as we walked side by side, has revealed far better than I can tell thee. Thou knowest that I love thee. From the first moment that I saw thee I have loved thee."
His words made her heart thrill with a strange joy. But she showed no sign of it, and answered him coldly. She was proud and wished to test him.
"Doubtless the flood-gates of love are easily thrown open where a man would be released from a vow. Thou knowest how thou mayest win me. Art thou willing to run in the race?"
At this all his mirth returned to him, and his eyes shone with merriment as he answered:
"Much good would my love do me if I had to drink the poison cup perforce. Nay, nay," he said; "I love thee too well to put death at thy door. When I have some chance of winning the race, I will come back and claim thee. In the meantime, lady, farewell."
And, bowing to her, he turned and went his way, without so much as looking back at her, as she stood trembling with astonishment and anger. It was not thus her other lovers had spoken. When he had gone from sight, she turned suddenly and went back by the path they had come. Her hands were clenched, and the tears sprang unbidden to her eyes, as she strode forward with long, angry strides that took no heed of where they went.
"He has made a mock of me!" she cried to herself—"he has made a mock of me!" He is a base adventurer who seeks release from his vow. He has no heart and no honour. Fool that I was to treat him as a friend!"
Thus did she stride along in her wrath, till it had cooled somewhat, and she was able to think more calmly of the stranger. Then his form came back to her mind, as he had looked when they stood face to face at the parting of the ways, when the sun had glinted down upon them through the trees, and he had looked her straight in the face with his clear blue eyes, and said: "Thou knowest that I love thee. From the moment I saw thee I have loved thee."
A great sob rose in her throat as she remembered.
"Ah, he spoke the truth!" she said; "I know that he spoke the truth."
Moreover, her heart told her that long before he had spoken the words she had known that he loved her. Yet strange is the bond of love. Its strands are certainty and doubt interwoven. Wherefore Atalanta, though she had heard the words which were but the echo of the silent speech of their hearts, had put him yet further to the test, and had driven him from her side by asking of him a sacrifice she had no wish for him to make.
"If he would come back and run with me," she sighed, "my feet would be as heavy as lead against him."
But she sighed in vain. Day after day passed by, and he came not.
"He is a man of his word," she thought at last. "Till he has some chance of winning he will not come back. And he is no fool. He knows he can never run as fast as I can run. He will never come back."
Yet, for all this she watched for him night and day. When she went forth into the road, or into the forest, she looked for his form at every turn of the way. When she entered the great hall of the palace, she looked to see his face at the board. But always she looked in vain, and sometimes her heart grew bitter against him.
"If he were come now," she would say to herself, "I would show him no mercy. He who takes so much thought before he will risk his life for my sake is not worthy to win me."
Then again she would grow tender, and stand looking down the path by which he had gone, and sigh for him.
"Oh, my love, come back, come back! My pride is melted away like the snow, and without any race I will give myself to thee."
Thus would she long for him, and grow near to hating him, because she knew that she loved him. The weeks and months passed by, and still he returned not; winter came and went, and once again the dewdrops shone in the summer sunlight as Atalanta walked in the forest at break of day. She walked with her eyes upon the ground, thinking of the summer morning a long year ago when he had walked by her side in silence along the very path. When by chance she raised her eyes, there, at the parting of the ways, he stood, as though in answer to her thoughts. With a cry she stopped short and gazed at him, and he came forward and bowed to her.
"I have come back, lady," he said.
"Oh!" she cried from her heart, "I am glad thou hast come back."
Then he bent and kissed her hand. So once more they walked in silence side by side along the path they had walked before; and once again the bond of love was knit strong between them, with its strands of certainty and doubt. As they drew near to the edge of the forest, Atalanta was the first to speak.
"And thy vow," she asked—"hast thou found release from it?"
"Not yet," he answered. "I am come back to run the race, that I may win release."
Once again the spirit of perversity came upon her.
"Where hast thou learnt to run like the wind?" she asked.
"I have not learnt to run like the wind," he replied. "I have learnt something better than that."
"Few things are better in a race than swiftness," she said.
"True," he answered; "yet I have found the one thing better."
"What is this strange thing?" she asked.
"When we have run the race, thou wilt know," he said.
"I have grown no sluggard," she said, with a toss of her head, as though to warn him that her speed was not a thing to be despised.
"That I can see," he said, as he cast a glance at her straight white limbs and the easy grace of her bearing as she walked beside him. Then they talked of different matters, and each one knew that that what they had nearest their hearts they were hiding from each other.
So they came to the palace, and from the lowest to the highest the inmates greeted the stranger with joy. For he had won the hearts of them all by his wit and his genial smile. But they sighed when they heard that he too had come to run in the fatal race.
"Alas!" said the old king, shaking his head, "I had rather no have looked upon thy face again than see thee back on such an errand."
The young man laughed. "He who runs with a fair hope of winning runs swiftly," he said. "The others were dragged down by the shackles of their own despair."
"Thou dost not know my daughter," said the king.
"Mayhap I know her better than thou thinkest, and better than thou knowest her thyself," said the stranger.
No arguments or entreaties would turn him from his purpose.
"I must win release from my vow," he said. "I cannot live all my life a nameless wanderer. Yet will I not wed any woman I love not, for the sake of my release. Atalanta alone can save me, for I love none other."
So the lists once again were prepared, and the course made smooth for the race. With trembling fingers Atalanta tied her girdle about her, and bound her sandals to her feet. Though her heart was crying out for the stranger to win, and praying that her feet might fail her at the last, yet her pride, too, lifted up its head.
"He makes so sure of winning," she thought, "he despises my swiftness. He shall see that nothing he has learnt can teach him to run as I can run. And yet—oh, cursed be the condition I thought so cunning in mine ignorance! Oh, would that he could win me without first outspeeding me!"
Thus did her pride and her desire pull two ways at once.
And now the folk were gathered together round the course, and Atalanta and the stranger stood ready and waiting for the word to be given. She had made it a condition of the race that her rivals should have a good start of her, and she stood with her eyes upon the stranger's back, as he waited many paces before her. All too soon the word was given, and he sprang forward from his place, like a dog which has been straining at his leash springs forward when the hook is unloosed. And Atalanta, too, sprang forward; but whereas the man ran like a hunted thing that strains every muscle to save its life, she ran with the swinging grace of the wild deer that, far away from the hunters and hounds, crosses the springing turf of the lonely moor, fearless and proud, as he throws back his antlers in the breeze. Thus did Atalanta run, as though she had no thought of the race, or of the man who ran for his life. Yet, though she seemed to make no effort, she gained upon her rival at every step, and now she was running close behind him, and now she was almost shoulder to shoulder, and out of the corner of his eye he could see the gleam of her tunic. Then for a moment he slackened his pace, and it seemed that she would pass him, and on every side the people shouted out to him, "Run, run! Faster, faster! She will pass thee."
Out of the corner of his eye he could see the gleam of her tunic.
But he put his hand into the opening of his tunic, and drew forth something from his breast. Then his hand swung up above his head, and from it there flashed a dazzling fiery apple. Up and down through the air it flashed like a meteor, and rolled along the grass, till it stopped far away in the centre of the course, and lay shining like a jewel in the rays of the sun. Every eye was turned from the race to watch its gleaming flight, and Atalanta stopped short and watched it too. When she saw it stop still in the middle of the course, flashing and sparkling in the grass, a great desire sprang up in her heart to have it—a mad, unreasoning desire that she could not resist. And she darted aside out of the path of the race, and went and picked up the shining golden apple and put it in the bosom of her tunic. Meanwhile the stranger had lost no time, and when Atalanta came back to the spot she had left, he was far ahead upon the course, and she had to run with a will if she wished to overtake him. But once again she gained upon him, and the space between them grew less and less, till they were running wellnigh shoulder to shoulder. And once again, he saw the gleam of her tunic beside him; and again he slackened his speed for a moment, and sent a second gleaming apple into the air. Once more the mad, unreasoning desire sprang up in Atalanta's heart, and, leaving the course, she picked up the second apple and put in the bosom of her tunic beside the first. By the time she had returned to the path the stranger had rounded the turning-point, and was well on his way towards the goal, and she put forth all her strength to overtake him. But the ease of her running was gone. She ran as one who runs bearing a burden, yet she would not cast away the golden apples in her bosom; for though they hampered her, she gained upon her rival, and for the third time they were running almost shoulder to shoulder. And again, the third time, the same thing happened, and Atalanta left the course to pick up the shining fruit. This time when she returned to her place the stranger was close upon the goal, and all around the people were shouting and waving their hands. Blindly she pulled herself together, and with all the strength that was left in her she made a great spurt to overtake him. If she would cast away the golden apples, she might yet win the race; but the same mad desire which had spurred her to pick them up forbad her now to let them go. As she ran they seemed to grow heavier and heavier in her bosom; yet she struggled and panted on, and step by step did she gain upon him, though her eyes were darkened to all but his form and the goal ahead. On every side the people shouted louder than before, for they knew not now which of them would win. As they drew near to the goal they were again almost shoulder to shoulder, and the stranger saw once more the flash of Atalanta's tunic beside him, while there were yet some paces to run. Then he gave a great spurt forward, and leapt away from her side. She tried to do likewise, but her strength was gone. She had made her last effort before. Thus did it come to pass that the stranger ran in first to the goal, and, running close upon his heels, Atalanta fell breathless into his arms as he turned to catch her. She had run twice as far as he, but what matter if he had not outsped her? He had won the race, and held the woman he loved in his arms. The tears shone in her eyes, but he knew they were no tears of grief; and in the face of all the people he kissed her.
Thus was Atalanta, the swiftest of all mortals, beaten in the race by the stranger, and learnt from his lips what it was that he had found on his travels that made speed of no avail in the race.
For after they had come back to the city, surrounded by the joyous folk, and had passed hand in had beneath the gateway, and the stranger had nodded with a smile at the old porter, who stood bowing before them; after he had revealed to them all that he was Meilanion, the son of Amphidamas, and the old king had fallen on his neck and given him his blessing, because he proved to be the son of his own boyhood's friend, and the man of all others he would have chosen for his son-in-law—after all this, when the speeches and the merrymaking were over, they two walked alone in the moonlit court of the palace. At last Atalanta had decked herself in the long saffron robes of a bride, and in her hands she bore the three shining apples. Meilanion's arm was about her, as they walked for a while in silence, but at length she spoke and held out the fruit in her hands.
"Tell me their secret," she said.
"Their secret lies in thy heart, Atalanta," he answered.
"What meanest thou?" she asked.
"I mean that if thou hadst not loved me, they would never have filled thy soul with longing to have them, and thou wouldst never have turned aside from the race."
"And, knowing this, thou didst stake thy life on my love?" she said.
"Knowing that, I staked my life on thy love," he answered.
"Then that was the one thing better than speed in the race?"
"Yes," he answered, "I learnt to trust in thy love."
There was silence for a moment between them, and then again Atalanta spoke.
"And whence came the apples?" she asked him.
"When I left thee at the parting of the ways," he said, "I travelled many a weary league by land, and on the road I passed many a shrine of Aphrodite. But I never passed them by without lifting up my hands in prayer to the goddess, for I knew that she could help me if she would, and I knew that to them that love truly she is ever kind in the end. But I wandered till I was footsore and weary, and yet I had no sign. At length I came to the seashore, and took ship for the pleasant isle of Cyprus, which is her own dear home. There at last she came to me, walking on the waves of the sea. As I lay on the shore in the night-time, I saw her as a great light afar, and she drew near to me with the foam playing white about her feet. In her hand she bore three shining golden apples. And she came and stood beside me, and I hid my eyes at the sight of her beauty. But she spoke to me in a voice that was soft and kind, and the melody of it touched my heart like the melody of music.
" 'Fear not, Meilanion,' she said; 'I have heard the cry of thy heart. Here are three apples from mine own apple-tree. If she whom thou lovest loves thee in return, she cannot resist the spell of their golden brightness. When thou runnest against her, cast them one by one into the middle of the course. If she love thee she will turn aside to pick them up. For her they will be heavy as the gold they seem made of. For thee they will be light as the fruit whose form they wear. Farewell, and good luck to thy race.'
"Thereupon darkness came over my eyes, and I could find no words to thank her. When I awoke I thought it had been a dream, but lo! by my side upon the sand lay the apples, shining in the sunlight."
"And thy vow?" asked Atalanta. "How camest thou to make such a vow?"
He laughed at her words.
"When a hare is hunted," he said, "thou knowest how he will double and turn, and take a line he has no mind to pursue to the end. So was it with me. Long ago in my father's house I heard of thee and of thy beauty, and how thou couldst cast such a spell upon the hearts of men that for thy sake they would fling away their lives. And a great desire came upon me to see this thing for myself, for I could scarce believe it. So I set forth alone to find thee, and hid my name from all men as I journeyed, for thus could I be more free to act as seemed best in mine own eyes. And I saw thee run in a race, and that glimpse was enough to tell me that I too one day must run with thee. Yet was I more wary than my rivals. I knew that to come as a suitor was the way to turn thy heart to stone. Wherefore I pretended to be bound by a vow, which would bring me as a passing stranger before thee. Canst thou forgive the lie?"
She smiled into his face.
"It was a daring venture," she said.
"I knew I was as one who treads unknown paths on a moonless night," he answered. "Yet deep in my heart I felt that when a man desires one thing on earth above every other—when he loves that thing better than life itself, he is like to win it in the end, if he walk patiently step by step in faith. He will win that thing, or death in his struggle for it; and he is content that so it should be."
Such was the winning of Atalanta. As for the golden apples, she placed them in a precious casket, and guarded them jealously all her day, for a memorial of the race that she had failed to win.