A Book of Myths
Page: 78“To men who live their little lives and work and die as I myself—though son of a nymph and of a god—must do,” he said, “I have brought two great gifts, oh my mother. I have taught them that from the grey olives they can reap a priceless harvest, and from me they have learned that the little brown bees that hum in and out of the flowers may be made slaves that bring to them the sweetest riches of which Nature may be robbed.”
“This do I already know, my son,” said Cyrene, and smiled upon Aristæus.
“Yet dost thou not know,” said Aristæus, “the doom that has overtaken my army of busy workers. No longer does there come from my city of bees the boom of many wings and many busy little feet as they fly, swift and strong, hither and thither, to bring back [Pg 157] to the hives their honeyed treasure. The comb is empty. The bees are all dead—or, if not dead, they have forsaken me forever.”
Then spoke Cyrene. “Hast heard, my son,” she said, “of Proteus? It is he who herds the flocks of the boundless sea. On days when the South Wind and the North Wind wrestle together, and when the Wind from the East smites the West Wind in shame before him, thou mayst see him raise his snowy head and long white beard above the grey-green waves of the sea, and lash the white-maned, unbridled, fierce sea-horses into fury before him. Proteus only—none but Proteus—can tell thee by what art thou canst win thy bees back once more.”
Then Aristæus with eagerness questioned his mother how he might find Proteus and gain from him the knowledge that he sought, and Cyrene answered: “No matter how piteously thou dost entreat him, never, save by force, wilt thou gain his secret from Proteus. Only if thou canst chain him by guile as he sleeps and hold fast the chains, undaunted by the shapes into which he has the power to change himself, wilt thou win his knowledge from him.”
“Lead me now to Proteus, oh my mother!” he said, and Cyrene left her throne and led him to the cave where Proteus, herdsman of the seas, had his dwelling. Behind the seaweed-covered rocks Aristæus [Pg 158] concealed himself, while the nymph used the fleecy clouds for her covering. And when Apollo drove his chariot across the high heavens at noon, and all land and all sea were hot as molten gold, Proteus with his flocks returned to the shade of his great cave by the sobbing sea, and on its sandy floor he stretched himself, and soon lay, his limbs all lax and restful, in the exquisite joy of a dreamless sleep. From behind the rocks Aristæus watched him, and when, at length, he saw that Proteus slept too soundly to wake gently he stepped forward, and on the sleep-drowsed limbs of Proteus fixed the fetters that made him his captive. Then, in joy and pride at having been the undoing of the shepherd of the seas, Aristæus shouted aloud. And Proteus, awaking, swiftly turned himself into a wild boar with white tusks that lusted to thrust themselves into the thighs of Aristæus. But Aristæus, unflinching, kept his firm hold of the chain. Next did he become a tiger, tawny and velvet black, and fierce to devour. And still Aristæus held the chain, and never let his eye fall before the glare of the beast that sought to devour him. A scaly dragon came next, breathing out flames, and yet Aristæus held him. Then came a lion, its yellow pelt scented with the lust of killing, and while Aristæus yet strove against him there came to terrify his listening ears the sound of fire that lapped up and thirstily devoured all things that would stand against it. And ere the crackle of the flames and their great sigh of fierce desire had ceased, there came in his ears the sound of many waters, the booming rush of an angry river in furious flood, the [Pg 159] irresistible command of the almighty waves of the sea. Yet still Aristæus held the chains, and at last Proteus took his own shape again, and with a sigh like the sigh of winds and waves on the desolate places where ships become wrecks, and men perish and there is never a human soul to save or to pity them, he spoke to Aristæus.