A Book of Myths/Atalanta
Atalanta, daughter of the king of Arcadia, returned sad at heart to her own land. Only as comrades, as those against whose skill in the chase she was wont to pit her own skill, had she looked upon men. But Meleager, the hero who loved her and her fair honour more than life itself, and whose love had made him haste in all his gallant strength and youthful beauty to the land of the Shades, was one to touch her as never before had she been touched. Her father, proud of her triumph in Calydon, again besought her to marry one of her many noble suitors.
"If indeed they love me as thou sayest," said Atalanta to her father, "then must they be ready to face for my sake even the loss of dear life itself. I shall be the prize of him who outruns me in a foot-race. But he who tries and fails, must pay to Death his penalty."
Thereafter, for many days, a strange sight was to be seen in Arcadia. For one after another the suitors came to race with the maiden whose face had bewitched them, though truly the race was no more fair to him who ran than would be a race with Death. No mortal man was as fleet as Atalanta, who had first raced with the wild things of the mountains and the forests, and who had dared at last to race with the winds and leave even them behind. To her it was all a glorious game. Her conquest was always sure, and if the youths who entered in the contest cared to risk their lives, why should they blame her? So each day they started, throbbing hope and fierce determination to win her in the heart of him who ran—fading hope and despairing anger as he saw her skimming ahead of him like a gay-hued butterfly that a tired child pursues in vain. And each day, as the race ended, another man paid the price of his defeat.
Daily, amongst those who looked on, stood her cousin Milanion. He would fain have hated Atalanta for her ruthlessness and her joyousness as he saw his friends die for her sake, yet daily her beauty, her purity, and her gallant unconsciousness took a firmer hold upon his heart. To himself he vowed that he would win Atalanta, but not without help from the gods was this possible. Therefore he sought Aphrodite herself and asked her aid.
Milanion was a beautiful youth, and to Aphrodite, who loved beauty, he pled his cause as he told her how Atalanta had become to him more than life, so that he had ceased to pity the youths, his friends, who had died for love of her. The goddess smiled upon him with gentle sympathy.
In the garden of her temple grew a tree with branches and twigs of gold, and leaves as yellow as the little leaves of the silver birch when the autumn sun kisses them as it sets. On this tree grew golden apples, and Aphrodite plucked three of them and gave them to the youth who had not feared to ask her to aid him to win the maid he loved. How he was to use the apples she then told him, and, well content, Milanion returned home.
Next day he spoke to Atalanta.
"So far has victory been thine, Fairest on earth," he said, "but so far have thy little winged white feet had only the heavy-footed laggards to outrun. Wilt have me run a race with thee? for assuredly I shall win thee for my own."
And Milanion looked into the eyes of Atalanta with a smile as gay and fearless as that with which a hero is wont to look in the eyes of his fellow.
Look for look did the virgin huntress give him. Then her cheeks grew red, as though the rosy-fingered dawn had touched them, and the dawning of love came into her heart.
Even Meleager was not quite so goodly a youth as this. Not even Meleager had been so wholly fearless.
"Thou art tempted by the deathless gods," she said, but her long lashes drooped on her cheek as she spoke. "I pity you, Milanion, for when thou dost race with me, the goal is assuredly the meadows of asphodel near where sit Pluto and Persephone on their gloomy thrones."
But Milanion said, "I am ready, Atalanta. Wilt race with me now?" And steadily he looked in her eyes until again they fell as though at last they had found a conqueror.Like two swallows that skim across a sunny sea, filled with the joyousness of the coming of spring, Atalanta and Milanion started. Scarcely did their feet
SHE STOPPED, AND PICKED UP THE TREASURE
seem to touch the solid earth, and all those who stood by vowed that now, at length, was a race indeed, a race worthy for the gods to behold.
But as they ran, almost abreast, so that none could tell which was the gainer, Milanion obeyed the bidding of Aphrodite and let fall one of the golden apples. Never before had Atalanta dreamed of such a thing—an apple of glistening gold! She stopped, poised on one foot as a flying bird poises for a moment on the wing, and picked up the treasure. But Milanion had sped several paces ahead ere she was again abreast of him, and even as she gained on him, he dropped the second apple. Again Atalanta was tempted. Again she stopped, and again Milanion shot ahead of her. Her breath came short and fast, as once more she gained the ground that she had lost. But, yet a third time, Milanion threw in her way one of the golden illusions of the gods. And, yet again, Atalanta stooped to pick up the apple of gold.
Then a mighty shout from those who watched rent the air, and Atalanta, half fearful, half ashamed, yet wholly happy, found herself running, vanquished, into the arms of him who was indeed her conqueror. For not only had Milanion won the race, but he had won the heart of the virgin huntress, a heart once as cold and remote as the winter snow on the peak of Mount Olympus.