LEGENDS FROM RIVER AND MOUNTAIN
CARMEN SYLVA (H. M. Queen Elisabeth of Roumania) and ALMA STRETTLE
CHAPTER II - THE SERPENT-ISLE
THE great Latin poet Ovid was banished by the Emperor of Rome, no one knew why, to a desolate spot near the mouth of the Danube, on the shores of the Black Sea. That land has had many masters, and last of all the Roumanians, under King Charles, took it from the Turks. Where Ovid once wandered by that lonely shore there is now a grand hotel, where fashionable ladies and officers sit and listen to the music of the band; a large town, too, lies hard by, but in the poet's days only a small collection of miserable huts stood there, which men called the city of Tomi. On one side there was nothing to be seen, as far as the eye could reach, but sand and marshes, where at intervals a solitary tree stretched out its barren boughs over some evil-smelling mere; while on the other the endless sea, black and cheerless, rolled its monotonous waves towards the shore. Snowstorms, unknown to an inhabitant of Rome, swept over the land in winter; and in summer the sun beat down with scorching heat, setting the brain on fire and parching the tongue. Wells were scarce here, and Ovid learnt to prize a draught of pure water more than he had ever prized the choicest wines in his Roman cellars. The inhabitants of the country were few—dark-skinned men, whose language was strange to him. The only Romans were men whom he would in former days have thought unworthy of his slightest glance or word—thieves, galley-slaves, or fraudulent officials. Surely he could never have borne such a life, and must have died of misery, save for one only consolation. Every man must have some such, be it only a dog, a flower, or a spider. Ovid had a snake, a tiny, bewitching snake, that always lay curled about his neck or his arm, and in whose eyes he read the most wondrous tales. To his mind she was very likely the victim of some spell—a banished princess in a serpent's shape—for did he not write the "Metamorphoses"?—and he wove fancies about her by the hour together—of how fair she was in reality, and how unfortunate, his shining little Colubra, as he called her. And as his thoughts wandered thus, and he sat gazing out upon the sea, his eyes would close and he would sink into peaceful sleep. One day, as he thus slept, he dreamed a strange dream; his little snake had suddenly become possessed of human speech, and was whispering softly in his ear, "Come, come with me to the island at the mouth of the Danube—that which they call the Serpent-Isle. There thou shalt witness transformations indeed." He awoke with a start of surprise; but his little snake was lying quite quietly about his neck, as though she had never spoken a word. Again he fell asleep, and again Colubra whispered, "Come to the Serpent-Isle. Come; trust thy little friend." The poet awoke once more and gazed at the little creature, that still clung motionless to his throat, and met his eyes with a strange look of comprehension. He slept for the third time, and for the third time Colubra whispered, "Come with me; thou wilt not repent it." But this time he awoke before she had finished speaking, and she gave him so expressive a glance that Ovid thought to himself, "Why should I not go to the Serpent-Isle? It cannot be a more desolate spot than this is; and if the serpents devour me, then there is an end of my pain for ever."
So he manned a sail-boat with stout rowers, took provisions with him for several days, and set out across the sea. He reached the island, not without trouble, for the Black Sea has its evil moods, far worse than those of the ocean itself. The heartsick poet was in danger of being punished for his desire to be quit of life, for it came near taking him at his word. But the boatmen were less weary of life than he, and fought bravely with the stormy elements, grumbling all the while at the enterprise.
"So much pain and danger for the sake of a desert island full of poisonous reptiles," they would mutter, casting dark glances upon the poet. Several times was he minded to put back, for fear of a mutiny among the crew, but each time a slight movement from the little creature about his throat admonished him to pause. Once or twice he was even aware of an impatient stroke from the slender tail, and the tiny head would be raised aloft, ever gazing in the same direction. "There is the island," muttered the sailors at last. "Where? " asked Ovid, for he could see nothing. "That strip of land there, at the river's mouth, that is the Isle of Serpents." As he saw the bank of sand covered with stunted bushes, the poet's heart sank, more on account of the men's discontent than because of the uninviting aspect of the place. To his mind the whole country was equally desolate, and whether it were somewhat more or less so was of little moment. But the little snake about his throat began fairly to dance for joy, and the lonely man felt glad of the pleasure he could give to the only creature he loved. As he stepped on shore he felt for her about his neck. What was his amazement at finding nothing there! His little Colubra was gone! Sore at heart, he thought to himself, "So that was why thou wert so fain to reach the island—only to forsake me! Thou art not a human being, yet thy deeds are even as theirs." And, lost in bitter thought, he waded onward through the deep sand, having promised the sailors to go and seek water for them. But the wine to be found on board was far more acceptable to the men, and soon they lay wrapped in a drunken sleep. Ovid went sorrowfully on his way. "Now have I lost my all," he sighed; and since no one saw him, he was not ashamed of the tears that filled his eyes.
Was it the gleam of those tears or the light of the sun that blinded him? Was a midsummer madness upon him? He passed his hand over his brow again and again and closed his eyes; but each time he reopened them his bewilderment increased. For there rose before him a magic garden, with shady trees, undulating lawns, and splashing fountains. A carpet of forget-me-nots and poppies spread out on every side, and the tender petals of the flowers seemed transfused with sunlight. Marble steps led down to the sea, and smooth paths wound in and out among hedges of rose and myrtle. Wondrous birds perched among the planes and chestnut-trees, and poured out a song that no nightingale could rival. Beneath the poet's feet, violets and mignonette gave forth well-nigh too unrestrained a perfume; and sprays of lilac and jessamine caressed his brow. The lonely exile fancied himself transported to one of the fairest gardens of Rome, and his heart beat high with joy, till it seemed ready to burst in his bosom. But what was his delight when he suddenly became aware of a crowd of beautiful maidens, gliding about among the trees and over the smooth turf chasing and embracing one another in the wildest glee, swinging upon the thick, tangled boughs of the hedge-roses, and tripping down the marble stairs to the sea, to bathe, and splash each other with the clear water. He saw, too, Roman matrons clad in long robes and snowy veils, whose faces seemed familiar, and men wearing the toga and mantle, who paced to and fro, as though in eager discussion over the topics of the day, just as of old in the Roman Forum. But before he could draw near them, a lovely maiden hastened up to him with a gesture of familiar greeting and took his hand, saying, "I warrant thou dost not know me in this shape ; yet I am thy little Colubra! Come with me and I will show thee all." And she drew him away, through the undulating crowd of people, who were all speaking Latin and Greek, so that he could understand their every word. He seemed to recognise them too, and would fain have accosted many a one by name, for they appeared to him to be courtiers of the Emperor, whom he had been wont to see every day. But his little guide clung to his hand with slender, caressing fingers and led him on. He heard around him the names of Greek sculptors or philosophers and Roman statesmen; and though these names might once have been indifferent to him, they now made his heart leap and brought the moisture to his eyes, only because it was so sweet to hear the familiar sounds once more. Several persons approached him with an expression of delighted surprise, but Colubra motioned them all aside with an impatient stamp of her little foot, and if they did not heed, her delicate eyebrows would contract and her dark eyes flash—those eyes which were the only reminder of her serpent nature. Once, however, it is true that she thrust the tip of her rosy tongue between her lips—a little tongue as sharp as though it could prick.
There were very few children to be seen in the magic garden, and those few, the poet noticed, crept sadly about, holding one another by the hand, and gazing with wide-open eyes at this gay, merry world, which seemed quite strange to them; No one spoke to them or took any notice of them, for here each seemed to think of nothing but his own pleasure. Ovid would have given them a kind word, but Colubra drew him past them also, and led him to an arbour hidden among the thick bushes, hard by a bubbling spring. There she fed him with the most luscious fruits, and making a cup out of a broad leaf, she fetched a draught of water for him. Then, swinging herself up on one bough and clasping her white arms round an other, she began in triumphant tones: "Now, what dost think of thy little friend?"
"I think thou art lulling me with a faëry dream."
"Nay, nay, thou art not dreaming! Thou art on the Serpent-Isle, whither all men are banished who have lied during their lifetime. Once in every thousand years the island grows green, and we can take our own shapes again, and wander in this magic garden. But no living man may look upon us save a poet, and he must be a sorrow-stricken creature; nor must he speak with anyone, for should he utter the smallest lie he would be changed into a serpent for a thousand years. And it will no longer be fair here to-morrow."
"But I can surely speak without lying?"
"Yea, with thy little Colubra, or on the mainland yonder, in Tomi, where thou dost need to ask for naught but bread, water, and wood, and where it avails thee nothing to be gracious or witty, since none would understand thee; but amid this company thou wouldst be tempted to speak as they do, and then I would not stand warranty for thee!"
"But I see statesmen here, high officials, artists and philosophers, matrons who are held in esteem, and even little children."
With a pitying smile she replied, "All these spoke un-truths while they lived; and because even in the under-world they and their false tongues are dreaded, they have been sent hereon to this island, where they can do no harm, or at least only hiss, and strangle one another. It is saddest of all for the children, because they are such strangers here, and belong to no one, neither are they remembered by any earthly friends. Even this festive day is sad for them, since it makes them feel lonelier than ever. This evening the old boatman, Charon, will sail to the shore of the island, and those who have spoken nothing but the truth during the last thousand years he will suffer to enter his boat, and to journey with him to the under-world. But thou must not await that moment, for then everything will be changed. I, truly, am privileged, for I may stay with thee, and thou art safe on the island, because thou art doing penance enough in thy lifetime."
" But thou—what hast thou done?" asked the poet.
"I?" The maiden blushed, and springing from the bough, answered carelessly, "I suppose I lied like the rest." And she drew him hastily away to join a group of dancing maidens. Yet, with a look round at him, she laid her finger on her lip.
It was high time, for an ancient dame approached Ovid with a friendly grimace and began—"Why, see! our great poet! Is he too, like us, banished from the earth and the under-world alike? Poor Ovid, art thou thyself metamorphosed? What a trick they have played us clever people, have they not? Were we to blame for being wiser than the rest? And thy sweet companion! I have known and loved her this long, long while."
"Thou liest!" cried Colubra, beside herself.
In the twinkling of an eye the old dame was changed into a huge snake, which darted hissing upon the young girl, coiled round her, and would surely have throttled her, had not Ovid used all his strength to wrestle with the noxious creature, and tearing it off, cast it far away from them. The maiden kissed his hands in a passion of gratitude, and the dancers crowned him with roses and myrtle. Presently a little boy ran up to him and cried in pleading tones—
"Take me away with thee; oh! take me away, and I will be as truthful as the sunbeams and as transparent as the clearest brook. Only take me with thee. I have seen that thou art a hero, and I—I was once a hero too; I was so strong that all my playmates feared to feel my fists! "While he yet spoke a little sharp, forked tongue shot out between his rosy lips, and before the poet's very eyes he was changed into a tiny slow-worm, that wound itself about his feet.
"And canst thou not speak truth for one hour, thou miserable little worm? " cried Colubra angrily. Yet Ovid looked compassionately upon the tiny snake, and did not move for a long time, for fear of hurting it.
But his friend was in haste to draw him from the spot: "Dost thou not see the sun is setting? Methinks I already hear the keel of Charon's boat rushing through the smooth water. Thou must away from here. The reality here is ugly, terribly ugly. Thou shalt only keep the memory of the beautiful dream."
Still Ovid lingered. He plucked blossoms and threw them to the laughing girls; he stood gazing out over the sea, that was now bathed in a flood of purple and golden light. But presently, like the very night itself, a ship with dusky sails moved silently towards the shore, spreading darkness around it as it came. The ship was large, but only one boatman stood therein, an old man with snowy beard and sunken eyes. His bony hands held a huge pole, with which he steered the ship, till he brought its keel grating upon the shore. Now he raised his pole aloft, so that the trickling water-drops shone like pure gold in the last rays of sunshine.
"Come," whispered Colubra, growing pale. But Ovid stood as though spell-bound. Charon raised his pole again and smote it against the trees with a sound like thunder. Then, behold, all the forms that moved upon the island pressed toward the ship and held out imploring hands. But Charon asked in deep, dread tones: "Who hath spoken the truth these thousand years?"
"I!—I!" came the answer from every side: but all who spoke the word were instantly changed into serpents.
"I," cried a wondrously beautiful woman, forcing her way through the mass of writhing reptiles, her white veil shining as it floated in the twilight air—" I have kept silence for a thousand years, that I might rejoin my seven children in the Elysian fields. I will go to my children!" And with this cry she sped over the sand into the ship.
"I," said Colubra quite low.
"Thou?" asked Ovid sadly. "Then must I lose thee?" Colubra looked at the poet and then at the ship.
"If I could but remain a maiden, I would love thee only, and belong to no other."
"O Colubra, thou liest! Keep silence!"
But he had scarcely spoken the words ere she was changed into the same little snake as of old.
Now the keel grated on the sand once again and Charon pushed off from the shore. And lo! the trees came crashing down, the flowers turned to dust, and the grass withered; while far, far away Charon's white beard and the woman's waving white veil shone out in the moonlight. But upon the sandy shore and among the stunted, thorny bushes only the smooth, gleaming serpent-forms crawled and writhed. Then horror fell upon Ovid, and he hastened towards his own boat. With the cry of "Serpents!" he awakened the sleeping men, who rubbed their eyes, muttering discontentedly, "For this we came hither, then—to see serpents!" "Away now, away!" cried Ovid, who, for the horror that was upon him, had well-nigh forgotten his little friend. But as they were pushing off he remembered her, and called aloud: "Colubra! my faithful little Colubra!" Then a faint, very faint sound of laughter smote his ear, and something wound itself caressingly about his neck, and two eyes gazed steadily up into his in the clear moonlight. The sailors thought their master had taken leave of his wits, for he spoke no more, save to murmur from time to time, "A thousand years!—and for me!" while he stroked something which shone round his throat, and which they took to be a jewel.
But, laughing softly once more, Colubra hissed into his ear, "Be not over vain, my soft-hearted poet. Not for thee alone did I give way to lying. For I found my lost lover again, yonder among the serpents, and a serpent he must remain. Yea—and I will remain even as my beloved is, until we can belong to one another."
Since that day the Serpent-Isle has been green and lovely once again, and only once, but no one was there to see it. Ah, if one could but be a poet, and alive in the year 2000!