Near Taenarum, in Laconia, was a cave among dark and gloomy rocks, through which led one of the entrances to the Lower World. This was the road by which Hercules descended when he went to carry off Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the threshold of Pluto. Undaunted by the terrors of the place, Orpheus passed through this gate and down a dark and dismal road to the kingdom of the dead. Here he came in safety through the crowd of ghosts and phantoms, and stood at last before the throne of Pluto and Proserpina. Then he touched the chords of his lyre and chanted these words:
“Great lords of the world below the earth, to which all we mortals must one day come, grant me to tell a simple tale and declare unto you the truth. Not to look upon the blackness of Tartarus have I come hither, nor yet to bind in chains the snaky heads on Cerberus. It is my wife I seek. A viper’s sting has robbed her of the years that were her due. I should have borne my loss, indeed I tried to bear it, but I was overcome by Love, a god well known in the world above, and I think not without honor in your kingdom, unless the story of Proserpina’s theft be a lying tale. I beseech you, by the realms of the dead, by mighty Chaos and the silence of your vast kingdom, revoke the untimely doom of Eurydice. All our lives are forfeit to you. ’Tis but a short delay, and late or soon we all hasten towards one goal. Hither all our footsteps tend. This is our last home, yours is the sole enduring rule over mankind. She too, when she shall have lived her allotted term of years, will surely come under your sway. Till then, I implore you, let her be mine. But if the Fates refuse a husband’s prayers, I am resolved never to return hence. My death shall give you a double boon.”
[Illustration: Orpheus and Eurydice.]
Thus he prayed and touched his harp in tune with his words. All around him the lifeless ghosts came flocking, and as they heard they wept. Tantalus forgot his hunger and thirst. Ixion’s wheel stood still, the Danaids set aside their leaky urns and Sisyphus sat on his stone to listen. Never yet had such sweet strains been heard in the world of gloom. Then, for the first time, tears moistened the cheeks of the Furies, and even the king and queen of the dead were moved to pity. They summoned Eurydice, and she came, yet halting from her recent wound.
“Take her,” says Pluto, “and lead her back to the light. But she must follow you at a distance, nor must you once turn round to look upon her till you have passed beyond these realms. Else the boon we grant you will be but vain.”
A steep path led upward from the realm of darkness, and the way was hard to find through the gloom. In silence Orpheus led on, till the goal was close at hand and the welcoming light of the upper air began to penetrate the darkness. Then a sudden fear struck his heart. Had Eurydice really followed his steps, or had she turned back, and was all his toil in vain? Tom with anxiety and longing, he turned to gaze on his beloved. Dimly he saw her, but for the last time, for a power she could not resist drew her back. Orpheus stretched out his arms and tried to seize her, but he only clasped the empty air. “Farewell, a last farewell,” she murmured, and vanished from his sight.