Pyramus and Thisbe were not Greeks, but lived in Babylon, which is an Asiatic city on the river Euphrates and much older than any of the cities of Greece. It was a rich and splendid place, whose hanging gardens were one of the seven wonders of the world. Being built on an open plain, it was made not of stone, but of baked bricks of river mud. Around it were immense brick fortifications, inside which narrow houses were huddled together.
Pyramus and Thisbe lived next door to each other and fell in love, but unfortunately their parents were extremely angry at this. The two were forbidden even to speak together, and since a father’s command was absolute law in his household, it was a very serious matter to disobey. It happened, however, that the thin brick partition between the two houses was badly built. A brick was loose, and after a little trouble the lovers found that they could easily slip it out and in. At certain times of day when nobody was about, one of them would go up quietly and knock on the wall. Presently, if the other answered, they would take out the brick and whisper to each other very quietly through the hole.
It was a small, unsatisfactory opening, too narrow for even Thisbe’s hand to pass right through. All they could do was to take turns at putting an ear to the wall, while both listened anxiously for the slightest sound of someone coming. Small wonder that they soon found things intolerable, and, as neither family showed the slightest sign of relenting, they determined to run away. In the city of Babylon they would soon have been found and taken back to their parents to be severely punished. They decided, therefore, to travel to some distant place where they could live without being asked too many questions.
The escape was carefully planned. They were to wait till night, when they would steal out unnoticed and each pass through a different gate of the city into the open country beyond. If they went together, the guards of the gate might notice and remember the pair, for few people went out of the town at night for fear of meeting robbers or wild beasts in the woods. Pyramus appointed a meeting place which he thought Thisbe could not fail to find, a monument called Ninus’ Tomb not far outside the walls. It was a pleasant spot with a spring nearby and a tall mulberry tree hanging over it. In the shade of this tree Thisbe was to rest and wait for him.
Everything went well until Thisbe, who had passed through the nearest gate, arrived at Ninus’ Tomb. She had never been out alone before, and all the little noises of the dark wood were terrifying to her. She had run the whole way from the gate, not daring to look around her, and now she sat down, drawing her cloak about her and trying to melt into the shadow of the mulberry tree.
There were rustlings in the dark thicket on the other side of the little clearing. Bushes seemed to move. Thisbe peered forward anxiously. There was a growling purr which could not have been the wind. She stiffened and held her breath to listen better. The bushes moved again; something very big was coming out of them. Thisbe saw a pair of gleaming eyes and the dark outline of a huge head. Now it was right out in the moonlight. It was a lioness.
Thisbe did not wait for the beast to get any nearer. She scrambled to her feet, dropped the entangling cloak, and ran for her life. She had no idea where she was going and only stopped when she tripped over a root and fell headlong, Then she did not dare get up, but lay trembling in some bushes against a bank, trying to still her breathing and to cower more closely to the ground.
The lioness had taken little notice of Thisbe. She had killed a calf already that night and was gorged with meat. Now she was slinking down to the spring to drink after her meal. On her way back to the thicket she noticed Thisbe’s cloak. She sniffed at it distrustfully, bit at it with her blood-stained jaws, and played with it a little. Soon, however, she tired of the sport, and the black wood swallowed her up.
It was at this point that Pyramus arrived breathless at Ninus’ Tomb, his mind full of fears for Thisbe, of wild beasts, robbers, or even ghosts. Who could tell what she might meet alone in the dark wood? Pyramus drew his sword and carried it in his hand. All seemed still, however, and though he called Thisbe’s name gently, nothing stirred beneath the tree. Then he saw the tracks of the lioness in the dust. Unspeakable fear came over him, and in another minute he had found the torn and bloody cloak and knew what must have happened. Thisbe had died horribly in some lion’s jaws. It was all his fault. He had suggested Ninus Tomb. He had planned that she should come to this dangerous place at night and alone. He could hardly bear to think of her dreadful fate, yet he could not help imagining it all the same. He would remember it for the rest of his life and know that it was all his fault. With that unendurable thought came a sudden resolution. Quickly he gripped his drawn sword low down on its blade and, holding it like a dagger, plunged it into his body with all his strength. He fell forward into the mulberry’s shade, his head on the cloak, and his hand still clutching feebly at the sword.
In the meantime Thisbe’s panic had died down a little, and she thought of Pyramus. What would become of him if he came to Ninus’ Tomb and there met the lion? Whatever happened to her, she must go back. It was not easy to steal back quietly to the place where she had left a lion, and it took Thisbe a long time. At length, however, as the bright moon was getting low in the sky, she peered cautiously at the spot from a comparatively safe distance. There was a black shape lying in the shadow of the mulberry, the lion probably, but it was difficult to see. At that moment something moved.
Thisbe caught her breath; it looked horribly like a hand. It moved again, and Thisbe running forward found the dying body of her lover before her feet. Without stopping to think how it all happened, she knelt, raised his head in her hands, kissed him, and called his name. The dying eyes opened slowly, the lips moved, but that was all.
Thisbe laid the head gently down and looked up, possessed by utter despair. She did not know why this had happened, but she was aware that her whole future was shattered. She could not go on without Pyramus, and she dared not return to her furious father. Her eye fell on the sword. What Pyramus could do, she could do. It was easy to plant the weapon point up in the loose, sandy soil. Thisbe shut her eyes and threw herself forward with all her strength.
Thus died the unfortunate lovers, but their fate was not forgotten. Their parents, reconciled by their love, buried them together in a common tomb. The gods changed the berries of the mulberry from silvery white to red, so that the a tree which had watched over their deaths might be forever reminder of their misfortune.