Mother Ceres was very fond of her little daughter Proserpina. She did not of ten let her go alone into the fields for fear she should be lost. But just at the time when my story begins she was very busy. She had to look after the wheat and the corn, and the apples and the pears, all over the world, and as the weather had been bad day after day she was afraid none of them would be ripe when harvest-time came.
So this morning Mother Ceres put on her turban made of scarlet poppies and got into her car. This car was drawn by a pair of winged dragons which went very fast, and Mother Ceres was just ready to start, when Proserpina said, “Dear mother, I shall be very lonely while you are away, may I run down to the sands, and ask some of the sea-children to come out of the water to play with me?”
“Yes, child, you may,” answered Mother Ceres, “but you must take care not to stray away from them, and you are not to play in the fields by yourself with no one to take care of you.”
Proserpina promised to remember what her mother said, and by the time the dragons with their big wings had whirled the car out of sight she was already on the shore, calling to the sea-children to come to play with her.
They knew Proserpina’s voice and came at once: pretty children with wavy sea-green hair and shining faces, and they sat down on the wet sand where the waves could still break over them, and began to make a necklace for Proserpina of beautiful shells brought from their home at the bottom of the sea.
Proserpina was so delighted when they hung the necklace round her neck that she wanted to give them something in return. “Will you come with me into the fields,” she asked, “and I will gather flowers and make you each a wreath?”
“Oh no, dear Proserpina,” said the sea-children, “we may not go with you on the dry land. We must keep close beside the sea and let the waves wash over us every minute or two. If it were not for the salt water we should soon look like bunches of dried sea-weed instead of sea-children.”
“That is a great pity,” said Proserpina, “but if you wait for me here, I will run to the fields and be back again with my apron full of flowers before the waves have broken over you ten times. I long to make you some wreaths as beautiful as this necklace with all its colored shells.”
“We will wait, then,” said the sea-children: “we will lie under the water and pop up our heads every few minutes to see if you are coming.”
Proserpina ran quickly to a field where only the day before she had seen a great many flowers; but the first she came to seemed rather faded, and forgetting what Mother Ceres had told her, she strayed a little farther into the fields. Never before had she found such beautiful flowers! Large sweet-scented violets, purple and white; deep pink roses; hyacinths with the biggest of blue bells; as well as many others she did not know. They seemed to grow up under her feet, and soon her apron was so full that the flowers were falling out of the corners.
Proserpina was just going to turn back to the sands to make the wreaths for the sea-children, when she cried out with delight. Before her was a bush covered with the most wonderful flowers in the world. “What beauties!” said Proserpina, and then she thought, “How strange! I looked at that spot only a moment ago; why did I not see the flowers?”
They were such lovely ones too. More than a hundred different kinds grew on the one bush: the brightest, gayest flowers Proserpina had ever seen. But there was a shiny look about them and about the leaves which she did not quite like. Somehow it made her wonder if this was a poison plant, and to tell the truth she was half inclined to turn round and run away.
“How silly I am!” she thought, taking courage: “it is really the most beautiful bush I ever saw. I will pull it up by the roots and carry it home to plant in mother’s garden.”
Holding her apron full of flowers with one hand, Proserpina seized the large shrub with the other and pulled and pulled.
What deep roots that bush had! She pulled again with all her might, and the earth round the roots began to stir and crack, so she gave another big pull, and then she let go. She thought there was a rumbling noise right below her feet, and she wondered if the roots went down to some dragon’s cave. Then she tried once again, and up came the bush so quickly that Proserpina nearly fell backwards. There she stood, holding the stem in her hand and looking at the big hole which its roots had left in the earth.
To her surprise this hole began to grow wider and wider, and deeper and deeper, and a rumbling noise came out of it. Louder and louder it grew, nearer and nearer it came, just like the tramp of horses’ feet and the rattling of wheels.
Proserpina was too frightened now to run away, and soon she saw a wonderful thing. Two black horses, with smoke coming out of their nostrils and with long black tails and flowing black manes, came tearing their way out of the earth, and a splendid golden chariot was rattling at their heels.
The horses leaped out of the hole, chariot and all, and came close to the spot where Proserpina stood.
Then she saw there was a man in the chariot. He was very richly dressed, with a crown on his head all made of diamonds which sparkled like fire. He was a very handsome man, but looked rather cross and discontented, and he kept rubbing his eyes and covering them with his hand, as if he did not care much for the bright sunshine.
As soon as he saw Proserpina, the man waved to her to come a little nearer. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “Come! would you not like to ride a little way with me in my beautiful chariot?”
But Proserpina was very frightened, and no wonder. The stranger did not look a very kind or pleasant man. His voice was so gruff and deep, and sounded just like the rumbling Proserpina had heard underneath the earth.
She at once began to cry out, “Mother, mother! O Mother Ceres, come quickly and save me!”
But her voice was very shaky and too faint for Mother Ceres to hear, for by this time she was many thousands of miles away making the corn grow in another country.
No sooner did Proserpina begin to cry out than the strange man leaped to the ground; he caught her in his arms and sprang into the chariot, then he shook the reins and shouted to the two black horses to set off. They began to gallop so fast that it was just like flying, and in less than a minute Proserpina had lost sight of the sunny fields where she and her mother had always lived.
She screamed and screamed and all the beautiful flowers fell out of her apron to the ground.
But Mother Ceres was too far away to know what was happening to her little daughter.
“Why are you so frightened, my little girl?” said the strange man, and he tried to soften his rough voice. “I promise not to do you any harm. I see you have been gathering flowers? Wait till we come to my palace and I will give you a garden full of prettier flowers than these, all made of diamonds and pearls and rubies. Can you guess who I am? They call me Pluto, and I am the King of the mines where all the diamonds and rubies and all the gold and silver are found: they all belong to me. Do you see this lovely crown on my head? I will let you have it to play with. Oh, I think we are going to be very good friends when we get out of this troublesome sunshine.”
“Let me go home,” sobbed Proserpina, “let me go home.”
“My home is better than your mother’s,” said King Pluto. “It is a palace made of gold, with crystal windows and with diamond lamps instead of sunshine; and there is a splendid throne; if you like you may sit on it and be my little Queen, and I will sit on the footstool.”
“I do not care for golden palaces and thrones,” sobbed Proserpina. “O mother, mother! Take me back to my mother.”
But King Pluto only shouted to his horses to go faster.
“You are very foolish, Proserpina,” he said, rather crossly. “I am doing all I can to make you happy, and I want very much to have a merry little girl to run upstairs and downstairs in my palace and make it brighter with her laughter. This is all I ask you to do for King Pluto.”
“Never” answered Proserpina, looking very miserable. “I shall never laugh again, till you take me back to my mother’s cottage.”
And the horses galloped on, and the wind whistled past the chariot, and Proserpina cried and cried till her poor little voice was almost cried away, and nothing was left but a whisper.
The road now began to get very dull and gloomy. On each side were black rocks and very thick trees and bushes that looked as if they never got any sunshine. It got darker and darker, as if night was coming, and still the black horses rushed on leaving the sunny home of Mother Ceres far behind.
But the darker it grew, the happier King Pluto seemed to be. Proserpina began to peep at him, she thought he might not be such a wicked man after all.
“Is it much further,” she asked, “and will you carry me back when I have seen your palace?”
“We will talk of that by and by,” answered Pluto. “Do you see these big gates? When we pass these we are at home; and look! there is my faithful dog at the door! Cerberus; Cerberus, come here, good dog.”
Pluto pulled the horses’ reins, and the chariot stopped between two big tall pillars. The dog got up and stood on his hind legs, so that he could put his paws on the chariot wheel. What a strange dog he was! A big, rough, ugly-looking monster, with three heads each fiercer than the other.
King Pluto patted his heads and the dog wagged his tail with delight. Proserpina was much afraid when she saw that his tail was a live dragon, with fiery eyes and big poisonous teeth.
“Will the dog bite me?” she asked, creeping closer to King Pluto. “How very ugly he is.”
“Oh, never fear,” Pluto answered; “he never bites people unless they try to come in here when I do not want them. Down, Cerberus. Now, Proserpina, we will drive on.”
The black horses started again and King Pluto seemed very happy to find himself once more at home.
All along the road Proserpina could see diamonds, and rubies and precious stones sparkling, and there were bits of real gold among the rocks. It was a very rich place.
Not far from the gateway they came to an iron bridge. Pluto stopped the chariot and told Proserpina to look at the river which ran underneath. It was very black and muddy, and flowed slowly, very slowly, as if it had quite forgotten which way it wanted to go, and was in no hurry to flow anywhere.
“This is the river Lethe,” said King Pluto; “do you not think it a very pleasant stream?”
“I think it is very dismal,” said Proserpina.
“Well, I like it,” answered Pluto, who got rather cross when any one did not agree with him. “It is a strange kind of river. If you drink only a little sip of the water, you will at once forget all your care and sorrow. When we reach the palace, you shall have some in a golden cup, and then you will not cry any more for your mother, and will be perfectly happy with me.”
“Oh no, oh no!” said Proserpina, sobbing again. “O mother, mother, I will never forget you; I do not want to be happy by forgetting all about you.”
“We shall see,” said King Pluto; “you do not know what good times we will have in my palace. Here we are, just at the gate. Look at the big pillars; they are all made of solid gold.”
He got out of the chariot and carried Proserpina in his arms up a long stair into the great hall of the palace. It was beautifully lit by hundreds of diamonds and rubies which shone like lamps. It was very rich and splendid to look at, but it was cold and lonely and Pluto must have longed for some one to keep him company; perhaps that was why he had stolen Proserpina from her sunny home.
King Pluto sent for his servants and told them to get ready a grand supper with all kinds of dainty food and sweet things such as children like. “And be sure not to forget a golden cup filled with the water of Lethe,” he said to the servant.
“I will not eat anything,” said Proserpina, “nor drink a single drop, even if you keep me for ever in your palace.”
“I should be sorry for that,” replied King Pluto. He really wished to be kind if he had only known how. “Wait till you see the nice things my cook will make for you, and then you will be hungry.”
Now King Pluto had a secret reason why he wanted Proserpina to eat some food. You must understand that when people are carried off to the land of magic, if once they taste any food they can never go back to their friends.
If King Pluto had offered Proserpina some bread and milk she would very likely have taken it as soon as she was hungry, but all the cook’s fine pastries and sweets were things she had never seen at home, and, instead of making her hungry, she was afraid to touch them.
But now my story must leave King Pluto’s palace, and we must see what Mother Ceres has been about.
You remember she had gone off in her chariot with the winged dragons to the other side of the world to see how the corn and fruit were growing. And while she was busy in a field she thought she heard Proserpina’s voice calling her. She was sure her little daughter could not possibly be anywhere near, but the idea troubled her: and presently she left the fields before her work was half done and, ordering her dragons with the chariot, she drove off.
In less than an hour Mother Ceres got down at the door of her cottage. It was empty! At first she thought “Oh, Proserpina will still be playing on the shore with the sea-children.” So she went to find her.
“Where is Proserpina, you naughty sea-children?” she asked; “tell me, have you taken her to your home under the sea?”
“Oh no, Mother Ceres,” they said, “she left us early in the day to gather flowers for a wreath, and we have seen nothing of her since.”
Ceres hurried off to ask all the neighbors. A poor fisherman had seen her little footprints in the sand as he went home with his basket of fish.
A man in the fields had noticed her gathering flowers.
Several persons had heard the rattling of chariot wheels or the rumbling of distant thunder: and one old woman had heard a scream, but supposed it was only merriment, and had not even looked up.
None of the neighbors knew where Proserpina was, and Mother Ceres decided she must seek her daughter further from home.
By this time it was night, so she lit a torch and set off, telling the neighbors she would never come back till Proserpina was found. In her hurry she quite forgot her chariot with the dragons; may be she thought she could search better on foot.
So she started on her sad journey, holding her torch in front of her, and looking carefully along every road and round every corner.
She had not gone very far before she found one of the wonderful flowers which Proserpina had pulled from the poison bush.
“Ha!” said Mother Ceres, examining it carefully, “there is mischief in this flower: it did not grow in the earth by any help of mine; it is the work of magic, and perhaps it has poisoned my poor child.” And she hid it in her bosom.
All night long Ceres sought for her daughter. She knocked at the doors of farm-houses where the people were all asleep, and they came to see who was there, rubbing their eyes and yawning. They were very sorry for the poor mother when they heard her tale—but they knew nothing about Proserpina.
At every palace door, too, she knocked, so loudly that the servants ran quickly, expecting to find a great queen, and when they saw only a sad lonely woman with a burning torch in her hand, and a wreath of withered poppies on her head, they were angry and drove her rudely away.
But nobody had seen Proserpina, and Mother Ceres wandered about till the night was passed, without sitting down to rest, and without taking any food. She did not even remember to put out her torch, and it looked very pale and small in the bright morning sunshine.
It must have been a magic torch, for it burned dimly all day, and then when night came it shone with a beautiful red light, and neither the wind nor the rain put it out through all these weary days while Ceres sought for Proserpina.
It was not only men and women that Mother Ceres questioned about her daughter. In the woods and by the streams she met other creatures whose way of talking she could understand, and who knew many things that we have never learned.
Sometimes she tapped with her finger against an oak tree, and at once its rough bark would open and a beautiful maiden would appear: she was the spirit of the oak, living inside it, and as happy as could be when its green leaves danced in the breeze.
Then another time Ceres would find a spring bubbling out of a little hole in the earth, and she would play with her fingers in the water. Immediately up through the sandy bed a nymph with dripping hair would rise and float half out of the water, looking at Mother Ceres, and swaying up and down with the water bubbles.
But when the mother asked whether her poor lost child had stopped to drink of the fountain, the nymph with weeping eyes would answer “No,” in a murmuring voice which was just like the sound of a running stream.
Often, too, she met fauns. These were little people with brown faces who looked as if they had played a great deal in the sun. They had hairy ears and little horns on their brows, and their legs were like goats’ legs on which they danced merrily about the woods and fields. They were very kind creatures, and were very sorry for Mother Ceres when they heard that her daughter was lost.
And once she met a rude band of satyrs who had faces like monkeys and who had horses’ tails behind; they were dancing and shouting in a rough, noisy manner, and they only laughed when Ceres told them how unhappy she was.
One day while she was crossing a lonely sheep-field she saw the god Pan: he was sitting at the foot of a tall rock, making music on a shepherd’s flute. He too had horns on his brow, and hairy ears, and goat’s feet. He knew Mother Ceres and answered her questions kindly, and he gave her some milk and honey to drink out of a wooden bowl. But he knew nothing of Proserpina.
And so Mother Ceres went wandering about for nine long days and nights. Now and then she found a withered flower, and these she picked up and put in her bosom, because she fancied they might have fallen from her daughter’s hand. All day she went on through the hot sunshine, and at night the flame of her torch would gleam on the pathway, and she would continue her weary search without ever sitting down to rest.
On the tenth day she came to the mouth of a cave. It was dark inside, but a torch was burning dimly and lit up half of the gloomy place. Ceres peeped in and held up her own torch before her, and then she saw what looked like a woman, sitting on a heap of withered leaves, which the wind had blown into the cave. She was a very strange-looking woman: her head was shaped like a dog’s, and round it she had a wreath of snakes.
As soon as she saw her, Mother Ceres knew that this was a queer kind of person who was always grumbling and unhappy. Her name was Hecate, and she would never say a word to other people unless they were unhappy too. “I am sad enough,” thought poor Ceres, “to talk with Hecate:” so she stepped into the cave and sat down on the withered leaves beside the dog-headed woman.
“O Hecate,” she said, “if ever you lose a daughter you will know what sorrow is. Tell me, for pity’s sake, have you seen my poor child Proserpina pass by the mouth of your cave?”
“No, Mother Ceres,” answered Hecate. “I have seen nothing of your daughter. But my ears, you know, are made so that all cries of distress or fright all over the world are heard by them. And nine days ago, as I sat in my cave, I heard the voice of a young girl sobbing as if in great distress. As well as I could judge, some dragon was carrying her away.”
“You kill me by saying so,” cried Mother Ceres, almost ready to faint; “where was the sound, and which way did it seem to go?”
“It passed along very quickly,” said Hecate, “and there was a rumbling of wheels to the eastward. I cannot tell you any more. I advise you just to come and live here with me, and we will be the two most unhappy women in all the world.”
“Not yet, dark Hecate,” replied Ceres. “Will you first come with your torch and help me to seek for my child. When there is no more hope of finding her, then I will come back with you to your dark cave. But till I know that Proserpina is dead, I will not allow myself time to sorrow.”
Hecate did not much like the idea of going abroad into the sunshine, but at last she agreed to go, and they set out together, each carrying a torch, although it was broad daylight and the sun was shining. Any people they met ran away without waiting to be spoken to, as soon as they caught sight of Hecate’s wreath of snakes.
As the sad pair wandered on, a thought struck Ceres. “There is one person,” she exclaimed, “who must have seen my child and can tell me what has become of her. Why did I not think of him sooner? It is Phoebus.”
“What!” said Hecate, “the youth that always sits in the sunshine! Oh! pray do not think of going near him: he is a gay young fellow that will only smile in your face. And, besides, there is such a glare of sunshine about him that he will quite blind my poor eyes, which are weak with so much weeping.”
“You have promised to be my companion,” answered Ceres. “Come, let us make haste, or the sunshine will be gone and Phoebus along with it.”
So they set off in search of Phoebus, both sighing a great deal, and after a long journey they came to the sunniest spot in the whole world. There they saw a young man with curly golden hair which seemed to be made of sunbeams.
His clothes were like light summer clouds, and the smile on his face was so bright that Hecate held her hands before her eyes and muttered that she wished he would wear a veil! Phoebus had a lyre in his hands and was playing very sweet music, at the same time singing a merry song.
As Ceres and her dismal companion came near, Phoebus smiled on them so cheerfully that Hecate’s wreath of snakes gave a spiteful hiss and Hecate wished she was back in her dark cave.
But Ceres was too unhappy to know whether Phoebus smiled or looked angry.
“Phoebus” she said, “I am in great trouble and have come to you for help. Can you tell me what has become of my little daughter Proserpina?”
“Proserpina, Proserpina did you call her?” answered Phoebus, trying to remember. He had so many pleasant ideas in his head that he sometimes forgot what had happened no longer ago than yesterday.
“Ah yes! I remember now—a very lovely little girl. I am happy to tell you that I did see Proserpina not many days ago. You may be quite easy about her. She is safe and in good hands.”
“Oh, where is my dear child?” cried Ceres, clasping her hands and flinging herself at his feet.
“Why,” replied Phoebus, “as the little girl was gathering flowers she was snatched up by King Pluto and carried off to his kingdom. I have never been there myself, but I am told the royal palace is splendidly built. Proserpina will have gold and silver and diamonds to play with, and I am sure even although there is no sunshine, she will have a very happy life.”
“Hush! do not say such a thing,” said Ceres. “What has she got to love? What are all these splendors if she has no one to care for? I must have her back. Good Phoebus, will you come with me to demand my daughter from this wicked Pluto?”
“Pray excuse me,” answered Phoebus, with a bow. “I certainly wish you success, and I am sorry I am too busy to go with you. Besides, King Pluto does not care much for me. To tell you the truth, his dog with the three heads would never let me pass the gateway. I always carry a handful of sunbeams with me, and those, you know, are not allowed within King Pluto’s kingdom.”
So the poor mother said good-by and hastened away along with Hecate.
Ceres had now found out what had become of her daughter, but she was not any happier than before. Indeed, her trouble seemed worse than ever. So long as Proserpina was above-ground there was some hope of getting her home again. But now that the poor child was shut up behind King Pluto’s iron gates, with the three-headed Cerberus on guard beside them, there seemed no hope of her escape.
The dismal Hecate, who always looked on the darkest side of things, told Ceres she had better come back with her to the cave and spend the rest of her life in being miserable. But Ceres answered that Hecate could go back if she wished, but that for her part she would wander about all the world looking for the entrance to King Pluto’s kingdom. So Hecate hurried off alone to her beloved cave, frightening a great many little children with her dog’s face as she went.
Poor Mother Ceres! It is sad to think of her all alone, holding up her never-dying torch and wandering up and down the wide, wide world. So much did she suffer that in a very short time she began to look quite old. She wandered about with her hair hanging down her back, and she looked so wild that people took her for some poor mad woman, and never thought that this was Mother Ceres who took care of every seed which was sown in the ground and of all the fruit and flowers.
Now she gave herself no trouble about seedtime or harvest; there was nothing in which she seemed to feel any interest, except the children she saw at play or gathering flowers by the wayside. Then, indeed, she would stand and look at them with tears in her eyes.
And the children seemed to understand her sorrow and would gather in a little group about her knees and look up lovingly into her face, and Ceres, after giving them a kiss all round, would lead them home and advise their mothers never to let them stray out of sight. “For if they do,” said she, “it may happen to you as it has happened to me: the iron-hearted King Pluto may take a liking to your darlings and carry them away in his golden chariot.”
At last, in her despair, Ceres made up her mind that not a stalk of grain, nor a blade of grass, not a potato, nor a turnip, nor any vegetable that is good for man or beast, should be allowed to grow till her daughter was sent back. She was so unhappy that she even forbade the flowers to bloom.
Now you can see what a terrible misfortune had fallen on the earth. The farmer plowed the ground and planted his seed, as usual, and there lay the black earth without a single green blade to be seen. The fields looked as brown in the sunny months of spring as ever they did in winter. The rich man’s garden and the flower-plot in front of the laborer’s cottage were both empty; even the children’s gardens showed nothing but withered stalks. It was very sad to see the poor starving sheep and cattle that followed behind Ceres, bleating and lowing as if they knew that she could help them.
All the people begged her at least to let the grass grow, but Mother Ceres was too miserable to care for any one’s trouble. “Never,” she said. “If the earth is ever to be green again, it must grow along the path by which my daughter comes back to me.”
At last, as there seemed to be no other way out of it, Mercury, the favorite messenger of the gods, was sent to King Pluto in the hope that he would set everything right again by giving up Proserpina.
Mercury went as quickly as he could to the great iron gates, and with the help of the wings on his shoes, he took a flying leap right over Cerberus with his three heads, and very soon he stood at the door of King Pluto’s palace.
The servants all knew him, as he had often been there in his short cloak, and cap, and shoes with the wings, and with his curious staff which had two snakes twisted round it.
He asked to see the King immediately, and Pluto, who had heard his voice from the top of the stairs, called out to him to come up at once, for he was always glad to listen to Mercury’s cheery talk.
And while they are laughing together we must find out what Proserpina had been doing since we last heard about her.
You will remember that Proserpina had said she would not taste food so long as she was kept a prisoner in King Pluto’s palace.
It was now six months since she had been carried off from her home, and not a mouthful had she eaten, not even when the cook had made all kinds of sweet things and had ordered all the dainties which children usually like best.
Proserpina was naturally a bright, merry little girl, and all this time she was not so unhappy as you may have thought.
In the big palace were a thousand rooms, and each was full of wonderful and beautiful things. It is true there was never any sunshine in these rooms, and Proserpina used to fancy that the shadowy light which came from the jeweled lamps was alive: it seemed to float before her as she walked between the golden pillars, and to close softly behind her in the echo of her footsteps.
And Proserpina knew that all the glitter of these precious stones was not worth a single sunbeam, nor could the rubies and emeralds which she played with ever be as dear to her as the daisies and buttercups she had gathered among the soft green grass.
King Pluto felt how much happier his palace was since Proserpina came, and so did all his servants. They loved to hear her childish voice laughing as she ran from room to room, and they felt less old and tired when they saw again how glad little children can be.
“My own little Proserpina,” King Pluto used to say, “I wish you would like me a little better. Although I look rather a sad man, I am really fond of children, and if you would stay here with me always, it would make me happier than having hundreds of palaces like this.”
“Ah,” said Proserpina, “you should have tried to make me like you first before carrying me off, and now the best thing you can do is to let me go again; then I might remember you sometimes and think that you were as kind as you knew how to be. Perhaps I might come back to pay you a visit one day.”
“No, no,” answered Pluto, with his gloomy smile, “I will not trust you for that. You are too fond of living in the sunshine and gathering flowers. What an idle, childish thing to do! Do you not think that these diamonds which I have had dug out of the mine for you are far prettier than violets?”
“No, oh no! not half so pretty,” said Proserpina, snatching them from Pluto’s hand, and flinging them to the other end of the room. “O my sweet purple violets, shall I ever see you again?” and she began to cry bitterly.
But like most children, she soon stopped crying, and in a short time she was running up and down the rooms as when she had played on the sands with the sea-children. And King Pluto, sad and lonely, watched her and wished that he too was a child, and when Proserpina turned and saw the great King standing alone in his splendid hall, so grand and so lonely, with no one to love him, she felt sorry for him. She ran back and for the first time in all those six months she put her small hand in his. “I love you a little,” she whispered, looking up into his face.
“Do you really, dear child?” cried Pluto, bending down his dark face to kiss her. But Proserpina was a little afraid, he was so dark and severe-looking, and she shrank back.
“Well,” said Pluto, “it is just what I deserve after keeping you a prisoner all these months, and starving you besides. Are you not dreadfully hungry, is there nothing I can get you to eat?”
In asking this Pluto was very cunning, as you will remember that if Proserpina once tasted any food in his kingdom, she would never again be able to go home.
“No, indeed,” said Proserpina. “Your poor fat little cook is always making me all kinds of good things which I do not want. The one thing I should like to eat would be a slice of bread baked by my own mother, and a pear out of her garden.”
When Pluto heard this he began to see that he had made a mistake in his way of trying to tempt Proserpina to eat. He wondered why he had never thought of this before, and he at once sent a servant with a large basket to get some of the finest and juiciest pears in the whole world.
But this was just at the time when, as we know, Mother Ceres in her despair had forbidden any flowers or fruit to grow on the earth, and the only thing King Pluto’s servant could find, after seeking all over the world was a single dried-up pomegranate, so dried up as to be hardly worth eating. Still, since there was no better to be had, he brought it back to the palace, put it on a magnificent gold plate, and carried it to Proserpina.
Now it just happened that as the servant was bringing the pomegranate in at the back door of the palace, Mercury had gone up to the front steps with his message to King Pluto about Proserpina.
As soon as Proserpina saw the pomegranate on the golden plate, she told the servant to take it away again. “I shall not touch it, I can assure you,” she said. “If I were ever so hungry, I should not think of eating such a dried-up miserable pomegranate as that.”
“It is the only one in the world,” said the servant, and he set down the plate and went away.
When he had gone, Proserpina could not help coming close to the table and looking at the dried-up pomegranate with eagerness. To tell the truth, when she saw something that really suited her taste, she felt all her six months’ hunger come back at once.
To be sure it was a very poor-looking pomegranate, with no more juice in it than in an oyster-shell. But there was no choice of such things in King Pluto’s palace, and this was the first fresh fruit Proserpina had ever seen there, and the last she was ever likely to see, and unless she ate it up at once, it would only get drier and drier and be quite unfit to eat.
“At least I may smell it,” she thought, so she took up the pomegranate and held it to her nose, and somehow, being quite near to her mouth, the fruit found its way into that little red cave.
Before Proserpina knew what she was about, her teeth had actually bitten it of their own accord.
Just as this fatal deed was done, the door of the hall opened and King Pluto came in, followed by Mercury, who had been begging him to let his little prisoner go.
At the first noise of their coming, Proserpina took the pomegranate from her mouth.
Mercury, who saw things very quickly, noticed that Proserpina looked a little uncomfortable, and when he saw the gold plate empty, he was sure she had been eating something.
As for King Pluto, he never guessed the secret.
“My dear little Proserpina,” said the King, sitting down and drawing her gently between his knees, “here is Mercury, who tells me that a great many sad things have happened to innocent people because I have kept you a prisoner down here. And to confess the truth I have been thinking myself that I really had no right to take you away from your mother. It was very stupid of me, but I thought this palace was so dull, and that I should be much happier if I just had a merry little girl to play in it, and I hoped you would take my crown for a toy and let me be your playmate. It was very foolish of me, I know.”
“No, it was not foolish,” said Proserpina, “you have been very kind to me, and I have often been quite happy here with you.”
“Thank you, dear,” said King Pluto, “but I cannot help seeing that you think my palace a dark prison and me the hard-hearted jailor, and I should, indeed, be hard-hearted if I were to keep you longer than six months. So I give you your liberty. Go back, dear, with Mercury, to your mother.”
Now, although you might not think so, Proserpina found it impossible to say good-by to King Pluto without being sorry, and she felt she ought to tell him about tasting the pomegranate. She even cried a little when she thought how lonely and dull the great palace with its jeweled lamps would be after she had left.
She would like to have thanked him many times, but Mercury hurried her away. “Come along quickly,” he said, “as King Pluto may change his mind, and take care above all things that you say nothing about the pomegranate which the servant brought you on the gold plate.”
In a short time they had passed the great gateway with the golden pillars, leaving Cerberus barking and growling with all his three heads at once, and beating his dragon tail on the ground. Along the dark, rocky road they went very quickly, and soon they reached the upper world again.
You can guess how excited and happy Proserpina was to see the bright sunshine. She noticed how green the grass grew on the path behind and on each side of her. Wherever she set her foot at once there rose a flower: violets and roses bloomed along the wayside; the grass and the corn began to grow with ten times their usual quickness to make up for the dreary months when Mother Ceres had forbidden them to appear above ground.
The hungry cattle began to eat, and went on eating all day after their long fast. And, I can assure you, it was a busy time with all the farmers when they found that summer was coming with a rush.
As to the birds, they hopped about from tree to tree among the fresh, sweet blossoms, and sang for joy that the dreary days were over and the world was green and young again.
Mother Ceres had gone back to her empty cottage, and was sitting very sadly on the doorstep with her burning torch in her hand. She had been looking wearily at the flame for some moments, when all at once it flickered and went out.
“What does this mean?” she thought. “It was a magic torch, and should have gone on burning till Proserpina was found.”
She looked up, and was surprised to see the bare brown fields suddenly turning green, just as you sometimes see them turn golden when the sun comes from behind a dark cloud.
“Does the Earth dare to disobey me?” exclaimed Mother Ceres angrily. “Did I not forbid it to be green until my child should be sent back to me?”
“Then open your arms, mother dear,” cried a well-known voice, “and take me back again.” And Proserpina came running along the pathway and flung herself on her mother’s bosom.
It would be impossible to tell how happy they were; so happy that they cried a little, for people cry when they are very glad as well as when they are unhappy.
After a little while Mother Ceres looked anxiously at Proserpina. “My child,” she said, “did you taste any food while you were in King Pluto’s palace?”
“Dearest mother,” answered Proserpina, “I will tell you the whole truth. Until this morning not a morsel of food had passed my lips. But a servant brought me a pomegranate on a golden-plate, a very dry pomegranate, with no juice inside, nothing but seeds and skin; and I was so hungry, and had not tasted any food for such a long time, that I took just one bite. The moment I tasted it King Pluto and Mercury came into the room. I had not swallowed a morsel, but O mother! I hope it was no harm, six pomegranate seeds remained in my mouth and I swallowed them.”
“O miserable me!” said Mother Ceres. “For each of these six pomegranate seeds you must spend a month every year in King Pluto’s palace. You are only half restored to me; you will be six months with me and then six months with the King of Darkness!”
“Do not be so vexed, mother dear,” said Proserpina. “It was very unkind of King Pluto to carry me off, but then, as he says, it was such a dismal life for him to lead in that great palace all alone: and he says he has been much happier since he had me to run about the big rooms and to play beside him. If only he will let me spend six months every year with you, I think I can bear to spend the other six months beside him. After all, he was as kind as he knew how to be, but I am very glad he cannot keep me the whole year round.”