A Book of Myths

Page: 51

But Marpessa spoke on:

“And thou beautiful god, in that far time,
When in thy setting sweet thou gazest down
On his grey head, wilt thou remember then
That once I pleased thee, that I once was young?”

So did her voice cease, and on the earth fell sudden darkness. For to Apollo had come the shame of love [Pg 99] rejected, and there were those who said that to the earth that night there came no sunset, only the sullen darkness that told of the flight of an angry god. Yet, later, the silver moonbeams of Diana seemed to greet the dark earth with a smile, and, in the winged car of Neptune, Idas and Marpessa sped on, greater than the gods, in a perfect harmony of human love that feared nor time, nor pain, nor Death himself.

[Pg 100]


“We have victualled and watered,” wrote Nelson from Syracuse in 1798, “and surely, watering at the fountain of Arethusa, we must have victory. We shall sail with the first breeze; and be assured I will return either crowned with laurel or covered with cypress.” Three days later, he won the Battle of the Nile, one of the greatest sea-fights of history.

Here in our own land the tales of the Greek gods seem very remote. Like the colours in an old, old portrait, the humanity of the stories seems to have faded. But in Sicily they grow vivid at once. Almost, as we stand above Syracuse, that long yellow town by the sea—a blue-green sea, with deep purple shadows where the clouds above it grow dark, and little white-sailed boats, like white butterflies, wing their way across to the far horizon—can we

“Have glimpse of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”

Here, to this day, one of the myths most impossible of acceptance to the scientific modern mind lives on, and Arethusa is not yet forgotten. “In Ortygia,” says Cicero, “is a fountain of sweet water, the name of which is Arethusa, of incredible flow, very full of fish, which would be entirely overwhelmed by the sea, were its [Pg 101] waters not protected from the waves by a rampart and a wall of stone.” White marble walls have taken the place of the protecting barrier, but the spring bubbles up to this day, and Ortygia (Quail Island) is the name still given to that part of Syracuse. Fluffy-headed, long, green stalks of papyrus grow in the fountain, and red and golden fish dart through its clear water. Beyond lie the low shores of Plemmgrium, the fens of Lysimeleia, the hills above the Anapus, and above all towers Etna, in snowy and magnificent serenity and indifference to the changes wrought by the centuries to gods and to men. Yet here the present is completely overshadowed by the past, and even the story of Arethusa knocks loudly at the well-barricaded doors of twentieth-century incredulity.