At last, however, drew nigh that evil hour of Athens—that day in every year when the seven youths and seven maidens had to be sent to King Minos of Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur. The rule was to choose the victims by lot: so that none felt safe who had sons and daughters young enough to suit the taste of the monster. The seven girls were first chosen. But when it came to drawing lots for the youths, Theseus said:—
"You need draw only six this year. I will myself be the seventh. It may be that I shall find a way to deliver Athens from this tribute; if not, it is for a prince who cannot save his people to perish with them."
Ægeus was in despair. But no entreaties could turn Theseus from his desperate resolve: neither the prayers of his own father, nor those of all the fathers and mothers in Athens, who would have drawn the seventh lot rather than he who was the pride and hope of the city should go to certain destruction. The ship which bore the yearly victims to Crete always carried black sails in token of public mourning. Theseus, in order to leave a little hope behind him, promised that, if he came back alive, he would hoist a white sail while returning, so that his safety might be seen from afar. Then, in solemn procession, amid the weeping of the crowd, the youths and maidens embarked in the black-sailed ship, Theseus leading them with the calmness of the only true courage—that which can, in cold blood, face danger for the sake of duty. None would have thought the worse of him had he stayed behind: and if he perished it would be as a mere victim, and without glory. Nor was it as if he were encouraged by any oracles, or helped by gifts from the gods. He is the first hero who was both a mere man and who never had any help but his own manfulness. And for all these reasons I think that his voyage to Crete is the finest story I have yet told.
When the ship reached Crete, the fourteen victims were conducted to the Labyrinth, there to be imprisoned until they should be given to the Minotaur. As they passed before Minos and his Court, the king's youngest daughter, Ariadne, was filled with pity and love for Theseus, and set her thoughts to work how she might save him from his doom. But how in the world was such a thing to be done? None without the clue could either enter or escape from the maze: and even were that possible, it was not likely that the Minotaur would let himself be balked of his prey.
But she watched and waited: she hovered round the Labyrinth night after night, examining every door: until at last she was rewarded by finding, just within one of them, a little silken skein hidden away in a dark corner. The next night, having procured a torch and a sword, she bravely entered the door where the skein was, and, by winding up the silk, followed the clue. Through one twisting passage after another she wandered on and on, up and down long flights of steps, sometimes through great halls confused with columns, and sometimes through tunnels in which it was scarcely possible to stand. There seemed no end to the way. At last, however, the end of the silken thread told her that she had reached the inmost hall: and there her torch showed a sight that froze her with fear.
The victims had been delivered over to the Minotaur. Crowded together in a corner of the hall were six youths and seven girls: stamping and tossing his horned head was the horrible monster, furious with hunger and the sight of human food. Between the Minotaur and his despairing prey stood Theseus, facing the monster, so that he, by being the first victim, might prolong the lives of the others. He had no hope: he could not even struggle, for his hands were bound behind him with cords.
The sight of his courage gave back Ariadne hers. She darted forward, and cut his bonds with her sword. "Fly!" she cried: "follow me—I have the clue!" But as soon as Theseus felt the touch of the steel, he seized the sword from her hand, and, instead of flying, set upon the Minotaur with such fury that the monster bellowed with rage, amazement, and pain.
It was the hardest fight Theseus had ever fought: the wild bull of Marathon had been nothing to the Minotaur, who fought with a bull's strength and a man's skill and cunning. But the champion of Athens prevailed at last: and the monster fell down dead with a groan which echoed through the Labyrinth like the bellowing of thunder.
"It will wake the whole city!" cried Ariadne: "follow me!" Theseus and his companions, scarce knowing that they were saved, followed Ariadne, who wound up the clue as she ran. When they reached the entrance-gate, the alarm of their escape had been given. Making straight for the shore, they found their black-sailed ship, sped on board, and, thanks to a kindly wind, were out at sea before they could be pursued.
The wind carried them to the island of Naxos: and here they remained—Theseus, Ariadne, and the rest—till the breeze should blow towards Athens. Such a breeze came in time; and then Theseus set sail for home with his thirteen companions, leaving Ariadne behind, to her great sorrow. Nor can anything make me believe that he meant this for a real parting, or that she thought so. One can think of many reasons why she should remain in Naxos for a while: it is quite certain that her powerful father Minos, who had already conquered the Athenians, and shown, by a cruel vengeance, how he hated them, would have attacked them again with all his fleets and armies if he had heard that they were giving shelter to a daughter who had betrayed him. So, leaving Ariadne safe in Naxos, Theseus returned to Athens as the savior of his city and the slayer of the Minotaur.
Meanwhile his father, Ægeus, had been every day and all day long looking out to sea from the farthest point of the shore for the return from Crete of the ship of mourning. He had but little hope, but nobody can help having a little: nor did he quite despair until one morning he saw on the horizon a vessel which he felt sure was the one he was watching for in such agony of mind. Nearer and nearer it came—alas! its sails were still as black as when it was outward bound. Theseus had forgotten to hoist the white sail which was to be the sign of safety.
So Ægeus, giving up his son for lost, threw himself into the sea and perished, just when Theseus was within sight of home. And that sea is called the Ægean, or the Sea of Ægeus, to this day. And thus Theseus, to the joy of the people, but with sorrow in his own heart, found himself king.
And the best of kings he made. The strength of his rule was only equaled by its gentleness. He made wise laws; he took care that all men received justice; he honored the gods; he obtained the respect and friendship of foreign nations; he taught the Athenians to be free, and to govern themselves, so that when he died they remained as great a people as while he was alive.
He sent for his mother, Æthra, and kept her in all love and honor. I wish I could tell you that he sent for Ariadne also. But he never had any other wife: and she was lost to him. There is a strange, mysterious story of how, when she was left sorrowing in Naxos, the god Bacchus (of whom you read in the First Story of Midas)—the god of the bounty of Nature and of the joy that men and women find in her—comforted Ariadne, and made her his bride, and raised her above the earth, giving her a crown of seven stars, which is still to be seen in the sky, and is called "Ariadne's Crown."
And there is a yet stranger story of how Theseus, after he was king, had the very wildest of all adventures—nothing less than an attempt to rescue from Hades the goddess Proserpine, and other imprisoned souls. But what happened to him there, and how he escaped the punishment of his daring, belongs to another story. It is as the hero and champion of Athens that he is remembered: and as such we will leave him.