Dream Tales and Prose Poems/Poems in Prose/The Nymphs

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I stood before a chain of beautiful mountains forming a semicircle. A young, green forest covered them from summit to base.

Limpidly blue above them was the southern sky; on the heights the sunbeams rioted; below, half-hidden in the grass, swift brooks were babbling.

And the old fable came to my mind, how in the first century after Christ's birth, a Greek ship was sailing on the Ægean Sea.

The hour was mid-day. . . . It was still weather. And suddenly up aloft, above the pilot's head, some one called distinctly, 'When thou sailest by the island, shout in a loud voice, "Great Pan is dead!"'

The pilot was amazed . . . afraid. But when the ship passed the island, he obeyed, he called, ' Great Pan is dead!'

And, at once, in response to his shout, all along the coast (though the island was uninhabited), sounded loud sobs, moans, long-drawn-out, plaintive wailings. 'Dead! dead is great Pan!' I recalled this story . . . and a strange thought came to. 'What if I call an invocation?'

But in the sight of the exultant, beauty around me, I could not think of death, and with all my might I shouted, 'Great Pan is arisen! arisen!' And at once, wonder of wonders, in answer to my call, from all the wide half-circle of green mountains came peals of joyous laughter, rose the murmur of glad voices and the clapping of hands. 'He is arisen! Pan is arisen!' clamoured fresh young voices. Everything before me burst into sudden laughter, brighter than the sun on high, merrier than the brooks that babbled among the grass. I heard the hurried thud of light steps, among the green undergrowth there were gleams of the marble white of flowing tunics, the living flush of bare limbs. . . . It was the nymphs, nymphs, dryads, Bacchantes, hastening from the heights down to the plain. . . .

All at once they appear at every opening in the woods. Their curls float about their godlike heads, their slender hands hold aloft wreaths and cymbals, and laughter, sparkling, Olympian laughter, comes leaping, dancing with them. . . .

Before them moves a goddess. She is taller and fairer than the rest; a quiver on her shoulder, a bow in her hands, a silvery crescent moon on her floating tresses. . . .

'Diana, is it thou?'

But suddenly the goddess stopped . . . and at once all the nymphs following her stopped. The ringing laughter died away.

I see the face of the hushed goddess overspread with a deadly pallor; I saw her feet grew rooted to the ground, her lips parted in unutterable horror; her eyes grew wide, fixed on the distance . . . What had she seen? What was she gazing upon?

I turned where she was gazing . . .

And on the distant sky-line, above the low strip of fields, gleamed, like a point of fire the golden cross on the white bell-tower of a Christian church. . . . That cross the goddess had caught sight of.

I heard behind me a long, broken sigh, like the quiver of a broken string, and when I turned again, no trace was left of the nymphs. . . . The broad forest was green as before, and only here and there among the thick network of branches, were fadings gleams of something white; whether the nymphs' white robes, or a mist rising from the valley, I know not.

But how I mourned for those vanished goddesses!

Dec. 1878.