By James Russell Lowell, 1819-1891
In olden times there was a youth named Rhoecus. One day as he wandered through the wood he saw an ancient oak tree, trembling and about to fall. Full of pity for so fair a tree, Rhoecus carefully propped up its trunk, and as he did so he heard a soft voice murmur:
It sounded like the gentle sighing of the wind through the leaves – and while Rhoecus paused bewildered to listen, again he heard the murmur like a soft breeze.
And there stood before him, in the green glooms of the shadowy oak, a wonderful maiden.
“Rhoecus,” said she, in low-toned words, serene and full, and as clear as drops of dew, “I am the Dryad of this tree, and with it I am doomed to live and die. Thou hadst compassion on my oak, and in saving it thou hast saved my life. Now, ask me what thou wilt that I can give, and it shall be thine.”
“Beauteous nymph,” answered Rhoecus, with a flutter at the heart, “surely nothing will satisfy the craving of my soul save to be with thee forever. Give to me thy love!”
“I give it, Rhoecus,” answered she with sadness in her voice, “though it be a perilous gift. An hour before sunset meet me here.”
And straightaway she vanished, and Rhoecus could see nothing but the green glooms beneath the shadowy oak. Not a sound came to his straining ears but the low, trickling rustle of the leaves, and, from far away on the emerald slope, the sweet sound of an idle shepherd’s pipe.
Filled with wonder and joy Rhoecus turned his steps homeward. The earth seemed to spring beneath him as he walked. The clear, broad sky looked bluer than its wont, and so full of joy was he that he could scarce believe that he had not wings.
Impatient for the trysting-time, he sought some companions, and to while away the tedious hours, he played at dice, and soon forgot all else.
The dice were rattling their merriest, and Rhoecus had just laughed in triumph at a happy throw, when through the open window of the room there hummed a yellow bee. It buzzed about his ears, and seemed ready to alight upon his head. At this Rhoecus laughed, and with a rough, impatient hand he brushed it off and cried:
“The silly insect! does it take me for a rose?”
But still the bee came back. Three times it buzzed about his head, and three times he rudely beat it back. Then straight through the window flew the wounded bee, while Rhoecus watched its fight with angry eyes.
And as he looked–O sorrow!–the red disk of the setting sun descended behind the sharp mountain peak of Thessaly.
Then instantly the blood sank from his heart, as if its very walls had caved in, for he remembered the trysting-hour-now gone by! Without a word he turned and rushed forth madly through the city and the gate, over the fields into the wood.
Spent of breath he reached the tree, and, listening fearfully, he heard once more the low voice murmur:
But as he looked he could see nothing but the deepening glooms beneath the oak.
Then the voice sighed, “O Rhoecus, nevermore shalt thou behold me by day or night! Why didst thou fail to come ere sunset? Why didst thou scorn my humble messenger, and send it back to me with bruised wings? We spirits only show ourselves to gentle eyes! And he who scorns the smallest thing alive is forever shut away from all that is beautiful in woods and fields. Farewell! for thou canst see me no more!”
Then Rhoecus beat his breast and groaned aloud. “Be pitiful,” he cried. “Forgive me yet this once!”
“Alas,” the voice replied, “I am not unmerciful! I can forgive! But I have no skill to heal thy spirit’s eyes, nor can I change the temper of thy heart.” And then again she murmured, “Nevermore!”
And after that Rhoecus heard no other sound, save the rustling of the oak’s crisp leaves, like surf upon a distant shore.