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Horace Elisha Scudder

The Choice of Hercules

When Hercules was growing out of boyhood into youth, and had come to the time when young men become their own masters, and show plainly whether they will take the path which leads by virtue’s way to the end of life, or will take that which lies through sin, he sat down by the wayside and considered whether of the two he would choose. And as he sat there, two queenly women appeared and drew near; the one was fair to look upon and noble in form, of fine presence, with downcast eyes and grave bearing, clad in white garments; and the other was tender and soft, and so adorned as to seem fairer and ruddier than the former, with a bearing that seemed more stately, with eyes that were opened full and fair, and in garments that shone as the day; and oft she admired herself, and looked to see if any other were gazing upon her, and cast her eyes ever upon her own shadow.

As they came near to Hercules, the one first spoken of was keeping on her way, but the other made haste to get before her, and running to Hercules, said:—

"O Hercules, I perceive that thou art considering by which of the two paths thou wilt travel to thy life’s end. If, now, thou wilt make me thy friend I will lead thee by the pleasantest and easiest path, and thou shalt not fail to taste of all pleasures, and shalt go thy way unvexed by any hardships. For, first of all, thou shalt have no care for wars or the life of busy men, but shalt only cast about, to see what pleasant thing thou mayst have to eat or drink, or what delight there may be for thine eye or thine ear, or what pleasantness to smell or touch, and how thou mayst take thy joyance in the sports of the young, and how thou mayst sleep softly, and enjoy all these things with the least trouble. And should there come any doubt into thy mind lest there should be a lack of these things, have no fear that I will call thee to toil, and weariness, and hardness of life, that thou mayst obtain them, but know that whatever others labor for that shalt thou have without labor, wanting nothing which it may be possible ever to gain; for always do I give power to those that follow me to have their heart’s desire."

When Hercules heard these words, he said: "What is thy name, lady?" and she answered: "My friends call me Pleasure, but those who hate me call me names, and say I am Vice."

Thereupon the other, coming near, said, "As for me, I have come to thee, Hercules, because I know those who gave thee birth, and taught thee in thy childhood, and from this have hope that if thou wilt take the path which I take thou wilt become a good laborer in all that is pure and holy, and I shall be held in even higher honor and be yet more comely in the sight of good men. I will not make thee deceitful promises of pleasure, but I will show thee truthfully what the gods have appointed. For the gods give no good or fair thing to men without labor and care; wouldst thou have the gods merciful to thee, thou must serve them; dost thou wish to be beloved by thy friends, thou must do thy friends good deeds; art thou eager to be honored by any city, thou must be of use to that city; dost thou long to be admired for thy nobleness by all Greece, thou must make it thy endeavor to do well to Greece; desirest thou the land to yield thee ripe fruit, thou must till the land; thinkest thou to be rich in herds, thou must give thy care to the cattle; art thou impatient to grow mighty by war, and wouldst thou have power to set thy friends free and worst thine enemies, thou must study well the art of war with those who understand it, and learn to practice it; and then if thou wishest to have a strong body, thou must make it obedient to thy mind, and thou must exercise it with labor and the sweat of toil."

Here Vice interrupted her, and said: "Dost thou know, Hercules, by what a hard and long path this woman would lead thee to pleasure? But I will take thee by an easier and shorter way to happiness." Then Goodness said:—

"Thou bold woman, what good thing has thou? or what real pleasure dost thou know, who art not willing to do aught for the sake of these delights? for thou canst not even wait for the desire of these pleasures, but before the desire comes thou hast emptied them all, eating before thou art hungry, drinking before thou thirstest, and that thou mayst eat delicately, choosing skillful cooks; that thou mayst drink agreeably, getting costly wines, and cooling them in summer with snow water, that thou mayst sleep softly, thou gettest not only downy beds, but couches, and carpets beneath the couches, for thou longest for sleep, not because thou hast toiled, but because thou hast nothing to do. Thou art immortal, but thou hast been cast out by the gods, and art dishonored by good men; to the sweetest of all sounds, praise of thyself, thou art deaf, and to the fairest of all sights thou art blind, for thou never hast seen one good work of thine. And who would trust thee, when thou sadist aught? and who would satisfy thee, asking aught? or who in his right mind would dare to be of thy company? thy young men are weak, thy old men are senseless; when they pass their youth without toil they drag through age with toil and burden, ashamed of what they have done, weighted down with what they now do, having run through all pleasures in their youth, and waiting nothing but hardness in their age. But I am companion of the gods, and of all good men; no beautiful deed of gods or men is done without me. Gods and men pay me honor, each in his own kind; I am a beloved fellow to the craftsman, a faithful guard to the master of the house, a gracious aid to the townsman, a good partner in the labors of peace, a strong fellow soldier in war, and the best comrade in the world. My friends have a sweet enjoyment at their ease, of meat and drink, for they ask for nothing till they want it, and sleep to them is more refreshing than to those who toil not; when they miss it the loss is no burden, and when they have it they lose not thereby the doing of any needful thing. The young rejoice in the praises of the old, and the old men are glad at honor from the young; the memory of their former deeds is pleasant, and they are blessed in their present work, for, by me, they have the gods for their friends, men to love them, and their country to honor them. And whensoever the end of their journey comes, they lie not down in unhonored forgetfulness, but with joy at the hymns of praise, which are sung over them forever.

"Such things are possible to thee, O Hercules, child of good parents; to thee it is given by toil to win the most blessed happiness."