Hypermnestra to Lynceus
HYPERMNESTRA sends to the only survivor of so many brothers: the rest have all perished by the crime of their wives. I am closely confined, and loaded with a weight of chains. My piety is the sole cause of my punishment. I am deemed guilty, because my hand trembled to urge the sword to my husband's throat. Had I dared to commit the bloody deed, I should have been extolled. It is better to be thus deemed guilty, than please a father by an act of barbarity. I can never repent that my hands are unstained withmurder.
Should my father torture me with the flames that I have not dared to violate, or throw in my face the torches used at the nuptial rites; should be pierce me with the very sword which he gave me for an inhuman purpose, and destroy the wife by the death from which she saved her husband; yet would all his cruelty be insufficient to make my dying lips own repentance: Hypermnestra is not one who will repent of her piety. Let Danaus and my bloody sisters testify penitence for their wickedness; this usually follows deeds of guilt. My heart sickens at the remembrance of that bloody night; and a sudden trembling enervates the joints of my right hand. That hand which was thought strong enough to engage in the murder of a husband, even dreads to write of a murder that it did not commit; yet will I attempt to describe the horrid scene.
Twilight had overspread the earth; it was about the close of day, and night hastened on: we, the descendants of Inachus, are led to the palace of the great Pelasgus; and a father-in-law receives, into his house, daughters armed for the
destruction of their husbands.
Lamps adorned with gold shine through all the apartments, and impious incense is offered to the unwilling gods. The people invoke Hymen; but Hymen neglects their call: even the wife of Jove forsook her beloved city. The bridegrooms made their appearance, high in wine, and enlivened by the acclamations of their attendants; their anointed heads were adorned with garlands of flowers: they entered their bed-chambers (chambers doomed to be their graves), and reposed their limbs on beds fitter for their funeral piles. Thus they lay overcome with food, wine, and sleep; and a dead silence reigned in unsuspecting Argos. I seemed to hear around me the groans of dying men; I indeed heard them, and it was really as I feared. At this the blood forsook my limbs, the vital heat departed, and a coldness spread itself over all my joints. As the bending reeds are shaken by the mild zephyrs, or the rough northern blasts agitate the poplar leaves; a like, or more
violent shaking seised me. You lay quiet, lulled to rest by the sleepy draught I had given. The commands of a violent father had banished fear. I started up, and seised with a trembling hand the deadly sword. Why should I deceive? Thrice I took hold of the pointed steel, and thrice my feeble hand dropped the hated load. I aimed at your throat; blame me not if I acknowlege the truth: I aimed at your throat the blade I had received of my father. But fear and piety opposed the bloody deed; and my blameless right hand refused the hated task. I tore my purple garments, I tore my hair, and with a faint voice uttered this mournful complaint: "A cruel father you have, Hypermnestra; think of executing his commands, and make Lynceus also a companion to his brothers. I am a woman and a virgin, mild both by nature and years; these gentle hands are unfit to wield the fatal steel: but take courage, and, while he lies defenceless, imitate the bravery of your resolute sisters; it is very probable that, ere now, all their husbands are slain. Alas! if this hand could perpetrate a cruel
murder, it must first be dyed in the blood of its owner. How can they deserve death by possessing their uncle's realms, which yet must have been given to foreign sons-in-law? Even if our husbands have deserved death, what have we done? Why am I urged to a crime, which, if committed, robs me of my claim to piety? What have I to do with a drawn sword? Why are warlike weapons put into the hands of a girl? A spindle and distaff better suit these fingers." These things I revolved with myself; and, as I complained, the mournful words were accompanied with tears, which, gently falling from my eyes, bedewed your naked limbs.
While you sought to embrace me, and half-awake stretched your clasping arms, your hand was almost wounded by the drawn sword. And now, I began to dread my father, the guards, and the approaching light; when these my words roused you from sleep: Rise speedily, grandson of Belus, now the only survivor of so many brothers; unless you are quick in escaping, this is fated to be your eternal night.
You start up in a fright; the fetters of sleep are all loosened, and you behold in my hand the pointed weapon. As you ask the cause; Fly,
interrupted I, while night permits.
You escape, favored by the darkness of the night; while I remain. And now, morning coming on,
Danaus numbers over his slaughtered sons; one only was wanting to complete the bloody crime. He storms at his disappointment in the death of a single kinsman, and complains that too little blood had been shed. I am torn from my father as I embrace his knees, and dragged by the hair to prison. Is this the due reward of my piety? So it is that Juno's resentment has ever pursued our race, since Jove transformed Io into a cow, and the cow into a goddess. But was it not sufficient punishment for the unhappy maid to lose her natural form, and, stripped of her beauty, be no longer able to please the almighty Jove? She stood amazed at her new shape, upon the banks of her flowing parent; and beheld, in this paternal mirror, the unusual horns. Striving to complain, her mouth was filled with lowings; and she was equally terrified at her form and
voice. Unhappy maid, why this mad rage? Why do you wonder at your own shadow? Why do you number your feet formed to new joints? This beauteous rival, once dreaded by the sister of almighty Jove, now allays her raging hunger with leaves and grass: she drinks of the running stream, and is astonished to behold her own shape; she even trembles at the arms she wears, and thinks them aimed against herself. You, lately so rich as to be deemed worthy even of almighty Jove, now lie naked and defenceless in the unsheltered fields. You wildly run through the sea, over lands, and through kindred rivers. Even seas, lands and rivers, permit your wanderings. What is the cause of your flight? Why, Io, do you thus traverse the spacious main? It is impossible to fly from your own shadow. Whither, daughter of Inachus, do you run? It is the same individual who flies and who pursues; you lead, and at the same time follow the leader. The Nile, which pours into the ocean through seven floodgates, restored to her former shape this beloved of Jove. But why should I
mention remote times, and accounts for which I am beholden to old age? Even the present years afford ground of complaint. My father and uncle are at war: we are driven from our kingdom and home, and wander exiles on earth's remotest verge. My savage uncle singly possesses the throne and sceptre; we, a destitute crowd, follow, disconsolate, a helpless old man. You only (how small a part!) remain of a whole nation of brothers. I mourn both for those who perished, and those who gave the fatal stroke. I have not only lost a multitude of brothers, but also a like number of sisters; and both losses equally demand my tears. Lo, even I am reserved to a cruel punishment, because I saved your life! What fate is left for the guilty, when I, who merit only praise, am thus accused? And must I, once the hundredth of a kindred
tribe, suffer death for saving one of so many brothers? But, my dear Lynceus, if you have any regard to the piety of your sister, or any remembrance of her love, and the life she gave you, help me in this extremity; or, if death should set me free before you can arrive, bear privately my breathless frame to the funeral pile, and sprinkle my ashes with unfeigned tears. When you have faithfully performed the last obsequies, engrave upon my tomb this short inscription:
unhappy exile, was, as a reward for her piety, unjustly doomed to that death from which she had saved her brother.
I wish to write more; but my hand fails, disabled by a weight of chains; and ill-boding fears deprive me of the power of reflection.