Gateway to the Classics: A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by James Baldwin
A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin

At Old Cheiron's School

A FTER a long, hard journey by land and sea, Odysseus and his tutor, with bold Echion, came to Iolcos. Aged Peleus, king of Phthia and the fertile plains of Iolcos, greeted them with show of heartiest welcome; for he remembered that Laertes had been his friend and comrade long years before, when together on the Argo they sailed the briny deep, and he was glad to see the son of that old comrade; and he took Odysseus by the hand, and led him into his palace, and gave him of the best of all that he had.

"Tarry with me for a month," he said. "My ships are now at sea, but they will return; and when the moon rises again full and round, as it did last night, I will send you safe to Corinth on the shores of the Bay of Crissa."

And so Odysseus and the bard staid a whole month at Iolcos, in the house of Peleus the king. There were feasting and merriment in the halls every day; and yet time hung heavily, for the boy longed to re-behold his own loved Ithaca, and could hardly wait to see the moon grow full and round again.

"What mountain is that which looms up so grandly on our left, and whose sides seem covered with dark forests?" asked Odysseus one day, as he walked with his tutor beside the sea.

"It is famous Mount Pelion," said the bard; "and that other mountain with the steeper sides, which stands out faintly against the far horizon, is the scarcely less famed Ossa."

"I have heard my father speak of piling Pelion upon Ossa," said Odysseus, "but I cannot understand how that can be done."

"There were once two brothers, the tallest that the grain-giving earth has ever reared," said Phemius. "Their names were Otus and Ephialtes; and they threatened to make war even against the deathless ones who dwell on Mount Olympus. They boasted that they would pile Ossa on Olympus, and Pelion, with all its woods, upon the top of Ossa, that so they might make a pathway to the sky. And, had they lived to manhood's years, no one can say what deeds they would have done. But silver-bowed Apollo, with his swift arrows, slew the twain ere yet the down had bloomed upon their cheeks or darkened their chins with the promise of manhood. And so Pelion still stands beside the sea, and Ossa, in its own place, guards the lovely vale of Tempe."

"Oh, now I remember something else about Mount Pelion," cried Odysseus. "It was from the trees which grew upon its sides, that the ship Argo was built. And I have heard my father tell how Cheiron the Centaur once lived in a cave on Pelion, and taught the young heroes who came to learn of him; and how young Jason came down the mountain one day, and boldly stood before King Pelias, who had robbed old Æson, his father, of the kingdom which was rightfully his. Would that I had been one of Cheiron's pupils, and had shared the instruction which he gave to those youthful heroes!"

"The old Centaur still lives in his cave on Mount Pelion," said Phemius. "To-morrow, if King Peleus is willing, we will go and see him."

And so, the next day, the two went out of Iolcos, through vineyards and fields and olive orchards, towards Pelion, the snow-crowned warder of the shore. They followed a winding pathway, and came ere long to the foot of the mighty mountain. Above them were frowning rocks, and dark forests of pine, which seemed ready to fall upon and crush them. But among the trees, and in the crannies of the rocks, there grew thousands of sweetest flowers, and every kind of health-giving herb, and tender grass for the mountain-climbing deer. Up and up they climbed, until the dark forests gave place to stunted shrubs, and the shrubs to barren rocks. Then the pathway led downward again to the head of a narrow glen, where roared a foaming waterfall. There they came to the mouth of a cave opening out upon a sunny ledge, and almost hidden behind a broad curtain of blossoming vines. From within the cave there came the sound of music,—the sweet tones of a harp, mingled with the voices of singers.

Of what did they sing?

They sang of things pure and good and beautiful,—of the mighty sea, and the grain-bearing earth, and the blue vault of heaven; of faith, strong and holy; of hope, bright and trustful; of love, pure and mighty. Then the singing ceased, and the harp was laid aside.

Odysseus and the bard went quickly forward, and stood waiting beside the wide-open door. They could see, by looking in, that the low walls of the cave were adorned with shields of leather or bronze, with the antlers of deer, and with many other relics of battle or of the chase. Upon the smooth white floor were soft couches of bearskins; and upon the hearth stone in the centre blazed a bright fire of twigs, casting a ruddy, flickering light into the farthest nook and cranny of that strange room.

They had not long to wait at the door. An old man with white hair, and beard reaching to his waist, with eyes as clear and bright as those of a falcon, and with a step as firm as that of youth, came quickly forward to greet them. Odysseus thought that he had never seen a man with so noble and yet so sad a mien.

"Hail, strangers!" said the aged hero, taking their hands. "Hail, son of Laertes—for I know thee!—welcome to the home of Cheiron, the last of his race! Come in, and you shall be kindly entertained; and after you have rested your weary limbs, you shall tell me why you have come to Pelion, and what favor you have to ask of me."

Therewith he turned again into the broad cave-hall, and Odysseus and his tutor followed him. And he led his guests, and seated them on pleasant couches not far from the glowing fire upon the hearth. Then a comely youth brought water in a stone pitcher, and poured it in a basin, that they might wash their hands. And another lad brought wheaten bread, and set it by them on a polished table; and another brought golden honey in the honeycomb, and many other dainties, and laid them on the board. And when they were ready, a fourth lad lifted and placed before them a platter of venison, and cups full of ice-cold water from the mountain cataract. While they sat, partaking of these bounties, not a word was spoken in the cave; for old Cheiron never forgot the courtesy due to guests and strangers. When they had finished, he bade them stay a while upon the couches where they sat; and he took a golden lyre in his hands, and deftly touched the chords, bringing forth the most restful music that Odysseus had ever heard. He played a soft, low melody which seemed to carry their minds far away into a summerland of peace, where they wandered at will by the side of still waters, and through sunlit fields and groves, and reposed under the shelter of calm blue skies, shielded by the boundless love of the unknown Creator. When he had finished, Odysseus thought no more of the toilsome journey from Iolcos, or of the wearisome climbing of the mountain: he thought only of the wise and wonderful old man who sat before him.

"Now tell me," said Cheiron, laying his lyre aside,—"tell me what errand brings you hither, and what I can do to aid you."

"We have no errand," answered Phemius, "save to see one of the immortals, and to listen to the words of wisdom and beauty which fall from his lips. We know that you have been the friend and teacher of heroes such as have not had their peers on earth; and this lad Odysseus, who is himself the son of a hero, would fain learn something from you."

Cheiron smiled, and looked full into the young lad's face.

"I have trained many such youths as you for the battle of life," he said. "And your father, as were all the Argonauts, was well known to me. You are welcome to Mount Pelion, and to old Cheiron's school. But why do you look at my feet?"

Odysseus blushed, but could make no answer.

"I understand it," said Cheiron, speaking in a tone of sadness. "You expected to find me half man, half horse, and you were looking for the hoofs; for thus have many men thought concerning me and my race. Long time ago my people dwelt in the valleys and upon the plains of Thessaly; and they were the first who tamed the wild horses of the desert flats, and taught them to obey the hand of their riders. For untold years my fathers held this land, and they were as free as the winds which play upon the top of Pelion. Their warriors, galloping on their swift horses with their long lances ready in their hands, knew no fear, nor met any foe that could stand against them; and hence men called them Centaurs, the piercers of the air. But by and by there came a strong people from beyond the sea, who built houses of stone, and lived in towns; and these made cruel war upon the swift-riding Centaurs. They were the Lapiths, the stone-persuaders, and they had never seen or heard of horses; and for a long time they fancied that our warriors were monsters, half-steed, half-man, living wild among the mountains and upon the plain. And so the story has gone abroad throughout the world, that all the Centaurs, and even I, the last of the race, are hardly human, but have hoofs and manes, and live as horses live.

"Long and sad was the war between the Centaurs and the Lapiths; but the stone-persuaders were stronger than the piercers of the air. In time, my people were driven into the mountains, where they lived as wild men in the caves, and in the sunless gorges and ravines; and their enemies, the Lapiths, abode in the rich valleys, and held the broad pasture-lands which had once been ours. Then it chanced that Peirithous, king of the Lapiths, saw Hippodameia, fairest of our mountain maidens, and wished to wed her. Whether her father consented to the marriage, or whether the Lapiths carried her away by force, I cannot tell; but Peirithous made a great wedding feast, and to it he invited the chiefs of the Centaurs, and great Theseus of Athens, and Nestor of sandy Pylos, and many others of the noblest heroes of Hellas. Many wild and dark stories have been told of what happened at that wedding feast; but you must remember that all these stories have come from the mouths of our enemies, the stone-persuading Lapiths, and that their truth may well be doubted. Let me tell you about it, as I understand the facts to be:—

"In the midst of the feast, when the Lapiths were drunken with wine, Eurytion, the boldest of the Centaurs, rose quickly to his feet, and beckoned to his fellows. Without a word they seized upon the bride; they carried her, not unwilling, from the hall; they seated her upon a swift steed which stood ready at the door; then in hot haste they mounted, aiming to ride with their prize back to their mountain homes. But the Lapiths were aroused, and rushed from the hall ere our horsemen were outside of the gates. Fearful was the struggle which followed. Our men were armed with pine clubs only, which they had hidden beneath their cloaks, for they dared not bring weapons to the wedding feast. The Lapiths fought with spears; and with pitiless hate they slew one after another of the Centaurs, until hardly a single man escaped to the mountains. But the war ended not with that; for Peirithous, burning with anger, drove the remnant of people out of their mountain homes, and forced them to flee far away to the lonely land of Pindus; and I, alone of all my race, was left in my cavern-dwelling on the wooded slopes of Pelion."

When Cheiron had ended his story, Odysseus saw that his eyes were filled with tears, and that his hand trembled as he reached again for his lyre, and played a short, sad melody, as mournful as a funeral song.

"Why did you not go with your kindred to the land of Pindus?" asked Phemius.

"This is my home," answered Cheiron. "The fair valley which you see yonder was once my father's pasture land. All the country that lies before us, even to the meeting of the earth and the sky, is the country of my forefathers. I have neither parents, nor brothers, nor wife, nor children. Why should I wish to go away from all that is dear to me? This is a pleasant place, and the young boys who have been my pupils have made my life very happy."

"Please tell us about your pupils," said Odysseus, moving nearer to the wise old man.

"So many boys have been under my care," said Cheiron, "that I could not tell you about them all. Some have come and been taught, and gone back to their homes; and the world has never heard of them, because their lots have been cast in pleasant places, and their lives have been spent in peace. There have been others who have made their names famous upon the earth; for their paths were beset with difficulties, and before them loomed great mountains which they must needs remove or be crushed by them. Among these latter were Heracles, doomed to a life of labor, because another had usurped the place which he should have had; young Jason, hiding from the cruel hatred of his uncle Pelias; and gentle Asclepius, bereft of a mother's love, and cast friendless upon the world's cold mercies. And there were also Peleus my grandson, who is now your host at Iolcos; and Actæon, the famous hunter; and many of the heroes who afterward sailed on the Argo, to the golden strand of Colchis. Each of these lads had a mind of his own, and tastes which it was for me to foster and to train. Heracles was headstrong, selfish, impulsive,—terrible when he did not bridle his passions; and yet his great heart was full of love for the poor, the weak, and the down-trodden, and he studied to make plans for lightening their burdens. Jason loved the water; and wrapped in his cloak, he would sit for hours on Pelion's top, and gaze with longing eyes upon the purple sea. Asclepius delighted to wander among the crags and in the ravines of Pelion, gathering herbs and flowers, and studying the habits of birds and beasts. And Actæon had a passion for the woods and the fields, and had ever a pack of swift hounds at his heels, ready for the chase of wild boar or mountain deer.

"When these lads came to me, I saw that I must give to each the food which was best fitted for his needs, and which his mind most craved. Had I dealt with all alike, and taught all the same lessons, I doubt if any would have grown to manhood's full estate. But, while I curbed the headstrong will of Heracles, I did what I could to foster his love of virtue and his inventive genius; I taught young Jason all that I knew about this wonderful earth, and the seas and islands which lie around it; I led Asclepius farther along the pathway which he had chosen, and showed him the virtues that were hidden in plants and flowers; I went with Actæon upon the chase, and taught him that there is no sport in cruelty, and that the life of the weakest creature should not be taken without good cause. Thus I moulded the mind of each of the lads according to its bent; and each one grew in stature and in strength and in beauty, before my eyes. And then there were general lessons which I gave to them all, leading them to the knowledge of those things which are necessary to the well-equipped and perfect man of our day. I taught them how to wield the weapons of warfare and of the chase; how to ride and to swim; and how to bear fatigue without murmuring, and face danger without fear. And I showed them how to take care of their own bodies, so that they might be strong and graceful, and full of health and vigor; and I taught them how to heal diseases, and how to treat wounds, and how to nurse the sick. And, more than all else, I taught them to reverence and love that great Power, so little understood by us, but whom mankind will someday learn to know.

"It was not long till Heracles went out in his might to rid the world of monsters, to defend the innocent and the helpless, and to set right that which is wrong; and, for aught I know, he is toiling still along the straight road of Virtue, towards the blue mountains of Fame. And Jason, as you know, left me, and went down to Iolcos, to claim his birthright of old Pelias; and being bidden to bring the Golden Fleece to Hellas, he built the Argo, and sailed with the heroes to far-away Colchis. It was a proud day for me, his old teacher, when he came back to Iolcos with the glittering treasure; and I trusted that a life of happiness and glory was before him. But, alas! he had forgotten my teaching, and had, joined himself to evil; and Medea the witch, whom he loved, brought untold misery upon his head, and drove him ere long to an untimely death.

"Then Asclepius went out upon his mission; everywhere that he went, he healed and purified and raised and blessed. He was the greatest conqueror among all my pupils; but he won, not by strength like Heracles, nor by guile like Jason, but through gentleness and sympathy and brotherly love, and by knowledge and skill and patient self-sacrifice; and to him men gave the highest honor, because he cured while others killed. But the powers of darkness are ever hateful towards the good; and Hades, when he saw that Asclepius snatched back to life even those who were at death's door, complained that the great healer was robbing his kingdom. And men say that Zeus hearkened to this complaint, and that he smote Asclepius with his thunderbolts. Then the face of the sun was veiled in sorrow, and men and beasts and all creatures upon the earth wept for great grief, and the trees dropped their leaves to the ground, and the flowers closed their petals and withered upon their stalks, because the gentle physician, who had cured all pains and sickness, was no longer in the land of the living. And the wrath of silver-bowed Apollo was stirred within him, and he went down to the great smithy of Hephaestus, and, with his swift arrows, slew the Cyclopes who had forged the thunderbolts for Zeus, and spared not one. Then Zeus in his turn was filled with anger; and he sent the golden-haired Apollo to Pherae, in Thessaly, to serve for a whole year as bondsman to King Admetus."

At this moment, a tall and very handsome lad, whom Odysseus had not yet seen, came into the room. He was not more than six years old; his long amber hair fell in waves upon his shoulders; his eyes twinkled and flashed like the sunlight on the blue sea waves; he held his head erect, and he walked with a noble grace which betokened the proud soul within his breast. The eyes of Odysseus were fixed upon him, and he wondered who this noble human being could be. Cheiron saw his questioning look, and called the young lad to him.

"Odysseus," said he, "this is my great-grandchild, young Achilles, the son of King Peleus your host. Something tells me that your life and his will in aftertimes be strangely mingled; whether as friends or as foes, I cannot tell. You shall be friends to-day, at least, and after a while you shall go out together, and try your skill at archery. But, Achilles, you may go now and play with your fellows: I have something more to say to young Odysseus."

The lad turned, and left the room as gracefully as he had entered. Then Cheiron turned again to Odysseus and the bard.

"I was telling you about my pupils," he said; "and I will speak of but one other, for there are reasons why you should know his history. Peleus, the son of Æacus and my loved daughter Endeis, was brought to me by his mother from Ægina. There was something in the boy's face which showed that a strange, sad life was to be his; and, although he was not a promising lad, yet when he left me to go with Jason to Colchis, I felt great grief at losing him. But by and by, after the heroes had returned, I heard that Peleus had done many wicked things in Ægina, and that he had been driven into exile for his crimes. He went first to Ceyx in Thessaly, a lonely wanderer, cast off and forsaken by all his friends. And a story is told, that in his loneliness and his sorrow, he one day prayed to Zeus that he would give him companions. And Zeus heard his prayer, and great armies of ants were changed at once into men; and they did homage to Peleus, and became his subjects, and hence he is still called the King of the Myrmidons. Then he went to Phthia where Eurytion reigned. And Eurytion purified him from his crimes, and gave him his daughter Antigone in wedlock, and with her the third of his kingdom. But in an evil day they hunted the wild boar together in the woods of Calydon, and Peleus unwittingly slew his friend with an ill-aimed arrow. Then he fled from the people of Phthia, and came to Iolcos, where Acastus, the son of old Pelias, ruled. And Acastus welcomed him kindly, and purified him from the stain of Eurytion's death, and gave him of the best of all that he had, and entertained him for a long time as his guest. But Astydamia, the wife of King Acastus, falsely accused Peleus of another crime, and besought her husband to slay him. Then the heart of Acastus was sad, for he would not shed the blood of one who was his guest. But he persuaded Peleus to join him in hunting wild beasts in the woods of Pelion; for he hoped that then some way might open for him to rid himself of the unfortunate man. All day long they toiled up and down the slopes; they climbed the steep cliffs; they forced their way through brakes and briery thickets; and at last Peleus was so overwearied that he sank down on a bed of moss, and fell asleep. Then Acastus slyly took his weapons from him, and left him there alone and unarmed, hoping that the wild beasts would find and slay him. When Peleus awoke, he saw himself surrounded by mountain robbers; he felt for his sword, but it was gone; even his shield was nowhere to be found. He called aloud to Acastus, but the king was dining at that moment in Iolcos. I heard his cry, however; I knew his voice, and I hastened to his aid. The robbers fled when they saw me coming; and I led my dear but erring grandson back to my cavern, where the days of his boyhood and innocence had been spent.

"But I see that the sun is sinking in the west. I will say no more until after we have partaken of food."

With these words Cheiron arose, and left the room. Odysseus, anxious to become acquainted with the lads, arose also, and walked out into the open air. Achilles was waiting for him just outside the door, and the two boys were soon talking with each other as if they had long been friends.

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