Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

The Narcissus

T HIS story has nothing to do with Apollo: but I may as well tell it among the other flower stories.

There was a very beautiful nymph named Echo, who had never, in all her life, seen anybody handsomer than the god Pan. You have read that Pan was the chief of all the Satyrs, and what hideous monsters the Satyrs were. So, when Pan made love to her, she very naturally kept him at a distance: and, as she supposed him to be no worse-looking than the rest of the world, she made up her mind to have nothing to do with love or love-making, and was quite content to ramble about the woods all alone.

But one day, to her surprise, she happened to meet with a young man who was as different from Pan as any creature could be. Instead of having a goat's legs and long hairy arms, he was as graceful as Apollo himself: no horns grew out of his forehead, and his ears were not long, pointed, and covered with hair, but just like Echo's own. And he was just as beautiful in face as he was graceful in form. I doubt if Echo would have thought even Apollo himself so beautiful.

The nymphs were rather shy, and Echo was the very shyest of them all. But she admired him so much that she could not leave the spot, and at last she even plucked up courage enough to ask him, "What is the name of the most beautiful being in the whole world?"

"Whom do you mean?" asked he. "Yourself? If you want to know your own name, you can tell it better than I can."

"No," said Echo, "I don't mean myself. I mean you. What is your  name?"

"My name is Narcissus," said he. "But as for my being beautiful—that is absurd."

"Narcissus!" repeated Echo to herself. "It is a beautiful name. Which of the nymphs have you come to meet here in these woods all alone? She is lucky—whoever she may be."

"I have come to meet nobody," said Narcissus. "But—am I really so beautiful? I have often been told so by other girls, of course; but really it is more than I can quite believe."

"And you don't care for any of those girls?"

"Why, you see," said Narcissus, "when all the girls one knows call one beautiful, there's no reason why I should care for one more than another. They all seem alike when they are all always saying just the same thing. Ah! I do wish I could see myself, so that I could tell if it was really true. I would marry the girl who could give me the wish of my heart—to see myself as other people see me. But as nobody can make me do that, why, I suppose I shall get on very well without marrying anybody at all."

Looking-glasses had not been invented in those days, so that Narcissus had really never seen even so much of himself as his chin.

"What!" cried Echo, full of hope and joy; "if I make you see your own face, you will marry me?"

"I said so," said he. "And of course what I say I'll do, I'll do."

"Then—come with me!"

Echo took him by the hand and led him to the edge of a little lake in the middle of the wood, full of clear water.

"Kneel down, Narcissus," said she, "and bend your eyes over the water-side. That lake is the mirror where Diana comes every morning to dress her hair, and in which, every night, the moon and the stars behold themselves. Look into that water, and see what manner of man you are!"

Narcissus kneeled down and looked into the lake. And, better than in any common looking-glass, he saw the reflected image of his own face—and he looked, and looked, and could not take his eyes away.

But Echo at last grew tired of waiting. "Have you forgotten what you promised me?" asked she. "Are you content now? Do you see now that what I told you is true?"

He lifted his eyes at last. "Oh, beautiful creature that I am!" said he. "I am indeed the most divine creature in the whole wide world. I love myself madly. Go away. I want to be with my beautiful image, with myself, all alone. I can't marry you. I shall never love anybody but myself for the rest of my days." And he kneeled down and gazed at himself once more, while poor Echo had to go weeping away.

Narcissus had spoken truly. He loved himself and his own face so much that he could think of nothing else: he spent all his days and nights by the lake, and never took his eyes away. But unluckily his image, which was only a shadow in the water, could not love him back again. And so he pined away until he died. And when his friends came to look for his body, they found nothing but a flower, into which his soul had turned. So they called it the Narcissus, and we call it so still. And yet I don't know that it is a particularly conceited or selfish flower.

As for poor Echo, she pined away too. She faded and faded until nothing was left of her but her voice. There are many places where she can even now be heard. And she still has the same trick of saying to vain and foolish people whatever they say to themselves, or whatever they would like best to hear said to them. If you go where Echo is, and call out loudly, "I am beautiful!"—she will echo your very words.

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