Meanwhile Cupid lay tossing and groaning in his bed in his mother's palace, for his scalded shoulder gave him great pain. Venus wondered what could possibly have happened, for all her questioning could get nothing from him but moans. And maybe she would never have known, had not a sea-gull come to her with a whole budget of scandal: among the rest, how Cupid was carrying on a love affair with a mortal. And when the gull told her that the girl's name was said to be Psyche, the rage of the goddess knew no bounds. She hurried to Cupid's bedside, and gave him such a scolding that he must have forgotten the pain of the scald. Then she went, still storming, to Juno, and demanded the instant arrest and punishment of Psyche. From Juno she went to Jupiter himself, who put Mercury at her service. Mercury received from her a little book in which was written the name and description of Psyche, and with this he went about the world, proclaiming that whoever should seize a certain princess of that name, an escaped handmaid of Venus, should receive seven kisses from the goddess herself for a reward.
Knowing nothing of all this, Psyche wandered on and on till she saw a temple on the top of a mountain. She thought it might be the dwelling of Cupid, so she climbed up to it and found it littered with sheaves of corn, bound and unbound, scythes, sickles, and such things, all lying about in confusion. Shocked at finding a temple in such a state, she set to work to put everything in order. She was in the middle of her work, when a beautiful lady appeared before her, crowned with a wreath of wheat ears, whom she knew to be Ceres, the goddess of harvest.
"Who are you?" said the goddess graciously, "who work so hard to put the floor of my house in order?"
"Psyche," said she; "and I implore you, great goddess, to grant me shelter for a few days. I will serve you faithfully and well."
But when the goddess heard the name of Psyche, her face changed. "Willingly would I shelter you," said she. "But I dare not shelter one whom the wrath of Venus is following through earth and air. Begone! and be thankful that I do not keep you as a prisoner. Not even I dare offend Venus. My poor girl! I am sorry for you. But begone!"
Turned away by the kindest of all the goddesses, Psyche wandered on and on till she came to another temple in a gloomy valley, which proved to be the temple of Juno, to whom Psyche, falling on her knees before the alter, prayed for succour. But Juno, appearing to her, said:—
"Willingly would I help you; but though I am the Queen of Heaven, I must obey the law. Venus claims you as her handmaid, and nobody may give protection to a fugitive slave. Be thankful that I do not deliver you to your mistress. I pity you; but begone!"
So not even the greatest of all the goddesses could help her against the vengeance of Venus. Again she wandered on and on, helpless and despairing, till one of the servants of Venus met her and knew her. Seizing Psyche by the hair, she dragged her into the presence of the terribly beautiful goddess, who broke into a laugh of cruel triumph when she found her rival in her power. Venus delivered her over to her torturers, Anguish and Sorrow. They, having scourged and tormented her, brought her again before Venus, who flew at her like a fury, as if she would tear her limb from limb.
"You ugly slave!" said Venus, as soon as she recovered breath; "you want a lover, do you? Well, perhaps you may get one if you know how to drudge; you certainly won't any other way. I'll give you a trial."
So she took wheat, barley, millet, poppy seed, vetches, lentils, and beans, mixed them up together, and said:—
"Sort out every seed into its proper heap before evening. If you can do that, you shall not be scourged again."
Psyche sat down before her task in silent despair, crushed in heart, and aching in every limb. She could only pray that death would come to her before nightfall; for she could not bear the thought of those cruel scourges. And so she sat motionless until a little white ant, taking more pity on her than Ceres or Juno, called together his whole tribe, who sorted out the heap, grain by grain, into proper parcels, in no time, and then ran away.
Judge of the surprise of Venus when she found the work done. "Somebody has helped you!" said she. But she could not order her to be scourged, the work being done; so she threw her a piece of coarse bread for supper, and had her shut up in a wretched shed till day.
In the morning Venus came to her again. "Do you see yonder sheep, with golden fleeces, wandering without a shepherd? Go and bring me a piece of their wool, that you may escape another scourging."
Psyche set out, not to get the wool, but to drown herself in the river that ran along the meadow where the sheep were feeding. She was about to leap into the water, when one of the reeds spoke to her, and said, murmuring:—
"Pollute not these pure waters by thy death, nor yet venture to approach yonder sheep during the heat of the sun; for they are fierce and savage, and they will slay thee with their horns. But when they are resting towards evening, creep into the meadow, and collect the wool that has clung to the bushes."
Thus Psyche brought to Venus a whole lapful of golden wool. "Somebody has helped you!" again said the goddess, angrily. But she had to keep her word.
Still she could not bring herself to believe that Psyche could have performed these tasks unaided. She strongly suspected Cupid, though she kept him closely shut up in his chamber, making believe that his scalded shoulder still wanted careful nursing, for fear lest he might come across Psyche. She was quite sure he had never left his chamber for a moment. Nevertheless she resolved to send Psyche next time where not Love himself could follow or help her.
"Do you see yonder mountain-peak?" she said to her next morning. "From that peak falls a black fountain, as cold as ice. Take this urn, fill it with the cold back water, and bring it to me."
Psyche started off at once for the mountain-peak, meaning to throw herself from it, and so bring her miseries to an end. But it was not so easy to reach the top as she had hoped. The black fountain fell headlong from the middle of a terrible rock into a still more dark and terrible ravine, from which fierce and horrible dragons stretched up their long necks to guard the waters; and the roar of the water as it fell was this—"Begone, or perish!"
In the midst of her terror, an eagle came flying overhead, and called out to her:—
"Do not touch the water: this is the spring of the Styx, that sacred and dreadful river by whom the gods swear. Give me your urn."
So, swooping down, he took the urn in his talons, and flew with it through the gaping jaws of the dragons so swiftly that they had not time to close upon him, or to pierce him with their fiery tongues. Thus he reached the water, filled the urn, and flew back with it to Psyche, who brought it to Venus just as she had been bidden.
Venus was more enraged than ever; but this time she hid her anger with a smile. "I see there is nothing too hard for you," she said—"nothing. So do me one little service before we make friends. Nobody else could do it; but then one who is clever enough to steal the waters of the Styx can do everything. You see I have grown pale and thin with anxiety about my poor boy. Go as quickly as you can to the palace of King Pluto, and ask to see the Lady Proserpine. When you see her, say to her, 'Madam, Venus requests you to lend her a little of your beauty till to-morrow morning.' Here is a casket to bring it in; and be quick with your errand."
Then indeed did Psyche give herself up for lost. For she knew what you have read in the story of the Gods and the Giants—that Pluto was the King of Hades, that underground world of ghosts and spirits where men and women go when they die. And of this world of Hades the Lady Proserpine was queen.
Thinking that the shortest way to the world below was the best, she went to the top of a high tower, meaning to hurl herself out of life headlong. But the tower said:—
"Pause! for know that from the world where you are going none ever return. There is only one path by which you can reach Pluto's palace and come back again: and that path I will tell you. Listen carefully to all I say. Near to the city of Lacedæmon is a hill called Tænărus. In the hill is hidden a cavern which you must find; and from this cavern a path, which no mortal has yet trodden, runs straight into the hill. Take the path, but provide yourself first with these things: two pieces of barley-bread sopped in honey—one in each hand—and two pieces of money in your mouth. If anybody accosts you on the way, pass him by in silence. Give nothing to anybody with your hand. Show no pity. Help nobody. Taste nothing but dry bread, and open not the box you carry; for Venus knows you to be pitiful and helpful, and a little inquisitive as well, and will set traps for you to fall into. Therefore, be wise, and trust to nothing you see in the world of dreams and shadows. If you follow my directions, you may go and return in safety; if you fail in the least of them, you are a lost soul."
Psyche set off at once to the city of Lacedæmon, and, with a honey-sop in each hand and two silver coins in her mouth, sought for the cavern in the hill. She found it at last, and started along the path, blacker than night, which wound downwards into the heart of the earth. After she had traveled many hours, the path became illuminated with a pale twilight, by which she could just manage to see—a strange sort of half-light, such as one never sees above ground. It seemed to Psyche as if the path would never end. At last she saw figures approaching her in the distance; and these, as they approached, proved to be a lame man driving a lame ass laden with wood, which was slipping from its cords.
"Lady," said the lame man, "you see I am weak and helpless; help me to tie up my wood again so that it may not fall."
Psyche was just about to lay down her honey-sops and help him, when she remembered the tower's warning, and passed him by without a word.
On she went until she came to the bank of a broad river with water as black as ink; and just where the path ran down to the water was a ferry-boat, in which sat a very old man naked to the waist, and holding an oar. Psyche stepped into the boat, and the old man, in dead silence, pushed off, and began to row heavily across the black and sluggish stream. When the boat reached the middle, she looked down, and saw a skinny hand raise itself slowly out of the water. Then she perceived that the hand belonged to a corpse-like form floating half under the black ooze, which, in a hollow voice, thus besought her:—
"Lady, for pity's sake take me into your boat, that I may reach the other side. Else must I float here between life and death forever."
Psyche was about to bid the ferryman take the poor, half-dead creature into the boat, when she remembered the tower's warning against pity, and let the body drift by.
Arrived at the other side, the ferryman held out his hand for his fee. Psyche was about to take one of the coins from her mouth, when she suddenly remembered the tower's warning to give nothing to anybody with her hand. So, bringing one of the coins between her teeth, she dropped it into the open palm of the ferryman, and went her way.
A little farther on she came upon some old women weaving.
"Lady," said the eldest, "we are old, and it is dark, and our eyes are dim, and we have much to do before nightfall. Help us with our web, we pray you."
Psyche was about to comply, when she remembered the tower's warning against giving help, and passed on.
Still on and on she went until she reached a huge palace built of black marble, which she knew at once to be the abode of Pluto and Proserpine. But how was she to enter? For on the threshold stood a monstrous dog, with three heads and six flaming eyes, barking thunderously, and with horrible yawning jaws. This was the dog Cerberus, who never sleeps, and guards the palace of Pluto night and day. There was only one chance of passing him, and Psyche took it. She threw him one of her honey-sops, and ran past him while he was swallowing it down.
In the hall beyond the threshold sat Proserpine, Queen of Hades, and goddess of the Underworld, dark and beautiful, and crowned with white poppies and stars, with a two-pronged scepter in her hand. She received Psyche kindly, made her sit down on a cushion beside her, and bade the attendants bring meat, fruit, and wine. Psyche, hungry and thirsty after her long journey, was about to eat, when she remembered the tower's warning, and refreshed herself with a little dry bread only. Then rising, she said to Proserpine:—
"Madam, Venus requests you to lend her a little of your beauty till to-morrow morning, and here is a casket for me to carry it in."
"With pleasure," said Proserpine, taking the casket, opening it, breathing into it, closing it again, and returning it to Psyche, who, having performed her errand, departed reverently.
She got past Cerberus by throwing him her other sop, and gave the ferryman her other piece of money to row her back across the river. And so, without further peril or adventure, she reached the cavern in the hill, and the sunshine, and the broad light of day, with the casketful of beauty safe in her hand.
Then a great curiosity came upon her to know what this beauty of the Underworld might be—beauty so great that even Venus desired it to add to her charms. At last Psyche's curiosity grew so strong that she could withstand it no longer, and the tower's last warning was forgotten. What harm could a single glimpse do? So, first timidly, then more boldly, she raised the lid of the casket. And from the casket into which Proserpine had breathed there came forth a deep sleep, which fell over Psyche, so that first she felt faint, then her blood turned dull and cold, and the color left her cheeks, then her heart stopped, and then her breath,—for the Sleep of Death had come upon her, and she lay in the sunshine, pale and cold. For Death is the beauty of Proserpine.
Cupid, wearied out of patience by being kept prisoner in his chamber on account of a trifling hurt that no longer pained him, and loving his lost Psyche as much as ever, thought and thought how he might escape from the tiresome watchfulness of his mother. And it happened at last that the nurse on duty threw open the window for a moment to let in a breath of air. That moment was enough for Cupid: spreading his wings, he was through the window and away before the nurse could tell him from a bird. His wings had grown the stronger from their long rest, and he reveled in the freedom of the sunshine and the open air. Never had life felt so full of joy. Ah, if he could only find Psyche, not his mother herself should part them any more! And surely he would find her, for what cannot Love find or do?
He fled fast to the palace in the secret valley, but she was not there. There was scarce a corner of the world where he did not fly, in less time than it would take the very swiftest of birds. And at last—
He found her; and his wings lost their strength, and his heart melted for sorrow when he saw her stretched in the Sleep of Death upon the hillside—beautiful still, but with the beauty of Proserpine. The fatal casket lay open beside her, so he knew what had befallen. "Alas!" he thought, "if I had not flown from her in my anger she would not have died." He clasped her in his arms; he kissed her lips with enough love to wake the dead, if such a thing could be.
And such a thing could be—such a thing was! For at the kiss of Love the Sleep of Death began to slowly pass away. Back came the color to her lips and cheeks; her heart fluttered and beat; she breathed; she opened her eyes. And then she woke in his arms, glad and alive.
This is the story of Cupid and Psyche, of which there is nothing more to tell except that Psyche's troubles had a very happy and glorious ending indeed. For Jupiter, to make her a fitting wife for Cupid, received her into heaven, and on her arrival gave her with his own hands a goblet of nectar to drink—the wine of the gods, which makes all who taste of it immortal. Even Venus became reconciled to her, and the wedding-feast of Cupid and Psyche is one of the most famous festivals in the whole history of the skies.
I said a little way back that most of these stories have some sort of meaning, and people have found more meaning in the story of Psyche than in most of them. "Psyche" is the Greek for "soul," and I have already told you that "Cupid" means "love." So the story may show how the soul of man is loved by heaven; but how it has to pass through many sufferings and trials, and at last through death, before it reaches immortal happiness.
"Psyche" also means "butterfly," and Psyche herself, after she was received into heaven, always appears in pictures with a butterfly's wings. It seems curious at first that the same word means "soul" and "butterfly"; but it is not so curious when one thinks a little of the story. Just as the caterpillar that crawls on the earth seems to die when it becomes a chrysalis and then rises again as a winged butterfly, so man, bound down to earth like a caterpillar, seems to die, and then lives again, only changed.
In some very old pictures you may see a butterfly flying out from between a man's lips. That means that he is dying, and that his "Psyche," his "soul" or "butterfly," is leaving him.