"LEAVE the children here with me, if indeed thou and the queen must return to the city. The sky is over-cast, and the god himself; Apollo the Far-darter, whom thou honourest, will care for them."
It was the priest of Apollo in the ancient city of Thymbra who spoke, and he to whom he spoke was Priam, the king, who had come from his stately city of Ilium to offer sacrifice to the Thymbrian Apollo, and to consult his priest on matters relating to his kingdom.
"The sky is indeed over-cast," said Hekabe, the queen; "we shall scarce by fast driving reach the city before Jove, delighting in thunder, lashes the earth with his rains. If Ilioneus the priest will keep the children, and Laodice, their nurse, for this one night, it will be better for them."
"And Helenus will take care of the little Kassandra?" said the king, laying his hand on the shoulder of his little son. The boy looked up in his.
father's face, and put his arm about his sister's neck for answer; and the king and queen got quickly into their chariot, and drove with all speed towards Ilium. The clouds meanwhile gathered black and jagged, the thunder roared, the lightning flashed, and the children stood gazing at it, troubled in their hearts for their father and mother; until Ilioneus the priest came to them, and took them to his own apartments, where they found a repast spread of honey and the fruits, which grew in the sacred grounds of the temple, with cakes of unleavened bread such as the priests ate.
The hungry children soon forgot the storm and their parents in the pleasure of that feast; never were there such clusters of grapes, such figs or such crisp thin cakes; and the honey, fragrant with the thyme growing on the lovely slopes of Kallikolone, and the sparkling water from the sources of the Simois were more delicious to them than any honey or water they had ever tasted at home; but sweeter still was the quiet of the great temple, and the white hair and grave tenderness of the aged priest. But in spite of all, dewy sleep began to weigh down their eyelids, and Laodice the nurse laid them to rest--Helenus five years old, Kassandra three--and they were soon wrapt in the sweet, dreamless sleep that nourishes the life of little children.
All night long they slept their happy sleep, but when morning was now red in the east, Laodice, who lay at their feet, was roused by a cry from the little Kassandra,
and starting up, she beheld to her amazement, two large serpents winding about the children, who, no whit alarmed, were playing with the lithe creatures, and delighting in their movements. Laodice uttered a shriek of alarm, which brought Ilioneus the priest, already paying his orisons to the rising Phoebus.
"Hist!" cried the priest, holding back the nurse, who was rushing to the children; "know’st thou not that these are the messengers of Phoebus? Fright them not, they bode blessing, not evil to the children."
"Look! look! they are darting their forked tongues!" cried the nurse in despair, trying to shake off the grasp of the priest: he held her firm, but the serpents, startled at her cry, lifted their heads, unwound themselves from the bodies of the children, and moving side by side, passed by the priest and the nurse and, gliding into the shrine, disappeared under the altar of the god.
Then Ilioneus let Laodice go, and advancing to the bed where the children sat gazing, bewildered, after their late playfellows, "Fear not, happy children," he cried, "ye whom the god himself hath honoured. The holy serpents would have purged their mortal senses," said he, turning to the nurse; "so that the voices of nature, the songs of birds, and the sounds of the forest would have been to them as spoken language; and the present, the past, and the future, would have been revealed to them. Yea, woman, be it known to thee, that if thy foolish panic had not
frustrated the gracious purposes of the god, these children had this night received a gift more splendid than their royal birth, the great gift of prophecy which would make them as gods among men."
"A mighty gift truly," said Laodice, still trembling, "yet methinks the children of Priam and Hekabe might be esteemed sufficiently blessed. A prophet foresees trouble, but he can rarely avert it."
From that day the children ceased to be as they had been. They grew thoughtful beyond their years, loving the woods and flowing streams and all the multitudinous voices of nature; childish toys and games .ceased to give them pleasure, but even from their tender years their souls were drawn to the cares and thoughts of men, especially Kassandra, who, with her lovely, earnest eyes always straining after the unseen, became a wonder to her parents and to her brothers and sisters. But Priam and his queen did not like the story of the serpents to be commonly talked of, for of all their daughters Kassandra was the fairest, and likely to make a splendid marriage.
Years passed by, and at length Phoebus himself beheld and loved the solitary maid, and wooed her with song and music; but she, bent only on reading the future, cried:
"Give me, O give me to know what things are coming upon the earth!"
"It is a dangerous gift for mortal woman!" cried the son of Latone. "Be content to be loved by
me, and let me guard thee rather from knowledge of the future."
"Nay, grant me to know what is to be, and I am thine for ever!"
Then the god touched her tongue and her ears, and her senses were at once enlarged, so that she could hear sounds and see sights beyond the ken of ordinary men, and the maiden trembled at the flood of knowledge that rushed into her soul. In vain Phoebus called her by her name, and begged her to keep her promise to him.
"Ah!" shrieked the maiden, her rapt eyes gazing into the future, "I know not what it is thou wouldst have. Seest thou those sights and sounds of woe that crowd upon my senses? Seest thou yon foreign woman, with the boy Alexander leading her? Seest thou?"
"Turn thine eyes upon me, Kassandra, and keep thy promise," said the angry god. "Have I not loved thee from a child?"
"Alas! alas!" cried Kassandra, wringing her hands, "let me go! let me go! Even now Alexander is asking of the king a ship and rowers to go a-seafaring. Shame on him for leaving poor Oenone! Let me go. If I warn Priam of the woe and mischief which will come of his voyaging, it may not yet be too late."
Then Phoebus caught her in his arms, and would have held her; but she broke from him, uttering cries of lamentation, and rushed towards the palace.
"Faithless maiden!" shouted Phoebus, in wrath, "I take not from thee the gift I gave thee in the faith of thy promise, for that gift will be thy bitterest punishment. Peer into the future; behold sin and sorrow yet to come, without power to prevent one sin, to avert one woe; for I will harden and dull the hearts of those to whom thou prophesiest, so that they shall regard thee as a vain babbler, and place no faith in thy words."
So saying, the angry god leapt into his chariot, and was no more seen by Kassandra; but his cruel will was accomplished. Every separate sin and sorrow which wore the hearts of king and people was foreknown by her, proclaimed by her. But though event after event showed her predictions true, her people continued to disregard her warnings, and to treat her as a vain enthusiast. Alexander received the ship, and gathered about him a goodly company of rowers, in spite of her remonstrance. Helene came and was received, and Menelaus and Odysseus, when they came to demand her back, were sent away empty, though she made the palace ring with her cries, foretelling devastation to the flower-enamelled meadows of the Simois, foretelling death to man and dishonour to woman. Yet, in spite of her sorrow--nay, perhaps because of it, her beauty grew ever more remarkable as the colour of the rose is deepened by the frost; and, though the fortunes of Troy waxed darker and darker, there never were wanting wooers, who came to the
city drawn by the fatal light of her beauty, who would willingly have wedded her without dower, and who, failing to win her, fattened the fields of Ilium with their blood Othryoneus of Cerberus, who fell beneath the lance of Idomeneus; Koroebus, son of Mygdon, who fell in the last dreadful night, in the vain attempt to rescue her; and many more whose names live not in the verses of the poets.
"Speak not to me of wedlock!" she would exclaim. "No nuptial torches are kindled for me: the fire-brands which blaze for me are kindled to burn these vaunted palaces. Fly, generous youth, fly while yet there is time. The ruin of Ilium is decreed; the wood is felled, the nails are forged which shall frame the fatal engine which is to enter these god-built walls. Fly thou, while yet there is time. Thou owest no duty to King Priam, or to this city: fly while yet thou canst, lest thy blood be shed to no purpose, and thy mother be left childless among women."
So she warned and entreated, but, with a love that would not be thwarted, they hung about her: "If I may not live for thee, Kassandra, I can at least die for thee," would they say.
When Hektor of the glancing helm was slain, and the king, by Jove's command, was gone to ransom his body, while Hekabe and Andromache mourned hopelessly in their chambers, Kassandra mounted the watch-tower of Pergamus hopeful when all were despairing, and beholding from afar Priam and Idaeus, his charioteer,
scouring over the plain, she knew that they were bringing home the body of her dear brother, and lifting her voice, then for the first time not heard in vain, she called on all the men and women of Troy to go forth and welcome for the last time that Hektor whom they had so often brought in victorious, and whom they were bound to honour for all that he had done for them.
Hektor slain and due honour paid to his beloved corse, what was there for the maiden's prophetic eyes to behold but the garnering in of the fell harvest of sin and pride?
How in the sacking of the city the very statue of Athene could hardly save her from the grasp of Ajax Oileus, how in the division of the spoil she was assigned to Agamemnon, the king of men, as the fairest prize where many were so fair, has been told in stone and in verse by sculptor and by poet. Agamemnon, delighted with her beauty, carried her home to Argos, but would give no heed to her warnings of dishonour and death awaiting him in his own home.
Hapless Kassandra! doomed to share the fate of him she loved not. Klytaemnestra had no pity for her beauty or for her helpless state. The king had driven up to his palace-gates with her beside him; and though faithless to him herself, the queen would not brook the contempt of herself which it argued. Kassandra was beloved by him. It was enough. She also should die, and die with him.
Oh! the supreme agony of that hour when Agamemnon had gone into the house, like a bird into the net of the fowler, and Kassandra lingered without, still standing in the chariot.
Klytaemnestra, with a false show of pity, counselled her to be patient, reminding her that even Herakles had been a slave, but she could draw neither word nor sign from the daughter of Priam, and the queen gave up her attempt, concluding that her words were unintelligible to the foreign captive. She little knew how far too well the Trojan princess knew both what she said and what she was about to do.
When Klytaemnestra had desisted, and had passed into the house bent on her terrible errand, Kassandra lifted her head and uttered shriek upon shriek, for all the dread story of the Atreids passed before her eyes, culminating in the slaughter of the king, even then en-acting within the walls.
Then, with steadfast feet, she passed into the palace to the fate she well foreknew, praying only, with a touch of weakness, that the blow might strike her in a fatal spot, so that her passage to the house of Hades might be easy.
So lived and so died Kassandra the prophetess, fairest and holiest of the daughters of Priam, who loved her country with a devotion not inferior to that of Hektor himself, who bore even more than he the burden of the sins of her kinsfolk, to whom the foreknowledge of their sorrows was an ever-present grief, and who never
ceased to warn those who would not hearken. Surely to her, if to any one, the calm retreats of Elysium, entered even through the dark portal of a violent death, must have been welcome. How sweet to her the society of the good! how restful the company of those kindred souls who, in all ages, have toiled and striven for their brethren.
Men showed her tomb in Mycenae, where she was worshipped almost like that other unhappy maiden, Iphigeneia, by those who were hard driven by the toils of life. The tomb is shown no more, for sheep and wild goats graze over it, but the name of Kassandra passes from time to time through the melodies of the poets, like the summer winds sighing as they touch Aeolian strings.