A Book of Myths
Page: 52The beautiful Arethusa was a nymph in Diana’s train, and many a time in the chase did she thread her way through the dim woodland, as a stream flows down through the forest from the mountains to the sea. But to her, at last, there came a day when she was no longer the huntress but the hunted.
The flaming wheels of the chariot of Apollo had made the whole land scintillate with heat, and the nymph sought the kind shelter of a wood where she might bathe in the exquisite coolness of the river that still was chilled by the snows of the mountain. On the branch of a tree that bent over the stream she hung her garments, and joyously stepped into the limpid water. A ray of the sun glanced through the leaves above her and made the soft sand in the river’s bed gleam like gold and the [Pg 102] beautiful limbs of the nymph seem as though carved from pure white marble by the hand of Pygmalion himself. There was no sound there but the gentle sound of the stream that murmured caressingly to her as it slowly moved on through the solitude, and so gently it flowed that almost it seemed to stand still, as though regretful to leave for the unknown forest so beautiful a thing as Arethusa.
And Heaven smiled above her.”
But suddenly the stillness of the stream was ruffled. Waves, like the newly-born brothers of the billows of the sea, swept both down-stream and up-stream upon her, and the river no longer murmured gently, but spoke to her in a voice that thrilled with passionate longing. Alpheus, god of the river, had beheld her, and, beholding her, had loved her once and forever. An uncouth creature of the forest was he, unversed in all the arts of love-making. So not as a supplicant did he come to her, but as one who demanded fiercely love for love. Terror came upon Arethusa as she listened, and hastily she sprang from the water that had brought fear upon her, and hastened to find shelter in the woodlands. Then the murmur, as of the murmur of a river before a mighty flood comes to seize it and hold it for its own, took form in a voice that pled with her, in tones that made her tremble as she heard.
“Hear me, Arethusa!” it said. “I am Alpheus, god of the river that now thou hast made sacred. I am the god of the rushing streams—the god of the thundering [Pg 103] cataracts. Where the mountain streams crash over the rocks and echo through the shadowy hollows of the hills, I hold my kingship. Down from Etna I come, and the fire of Etna is in my veins. I love thee! I love but thee, and thou shalt be mine, and I thine forever.”
Then Arethusa, in blind panic, fled before the god who loved her. Through the shadowy forest she sped, while he swiftly gained upon her. The asphodel bent under her flying feet, and the golden flowers of the Fiori Maggio were swept aside as she fled. Yet ever Alpheus gained upon her, until at length she felt that the chase was ended, and cried to Diana to save her. Then a cloud, grey and thick and blinding as the mist that wraps the mountain tops, suddenly descended and enfolded her, and Alpheus groped for her in vain.