THE next labor which Eurystheus laid upon Hercules was to clean out a stable.
That does not sound very much after the others. But then the stable was that of Augeas, King of Elis, which was at once the largest and the dirtiest in the whole world.
Augeas had a prodigious number of oxen and goats, and the stable in which they were all kept had never been cleaned. The result was a mountain of filth and litter, which not even Hercules could clear away in a lifetime—not, of course, from want of strength, but from want of time. Hercules beheld with disgust and dismay the loathsome and degrading toil in which he was to spend the rest of his days. The other labors had at least been honorable, and befitting a prince: this would have appalled a scavenger.
"It is very good of such a hero as you," said Augeas, "to undertake to clean my stable. It really does want cleaning, as you see: and it was very kind of Eurystheus to think of it. You shall not find me ungrateful. I will give you one ox and one goat in every ten—when the job is done."
He could very safely promise this, because he knew that the job could never be done.
"I am not serving for hire," said Hercules. "Nevertheless it is only right that you should not let your stable get into such a state as this, and then get it put right for nothing. You want a lesson: and you shall have it, too."
Seeing that mere strength would be wasted in such toil, Hercules went to work with his brain as well. Through the land of Elis ran the river Alpheus, that same Alpheus which had told Ceres what had become of Proserpine. Hercules carefully studied the country; and having laid his plans, dug a channel from near the source of the river to one of the entrances of the stable. Then, damming up the old channel, he let the stream run into the new. The new course was purposely made narrow, so that the current might be exceedingly strong. When all was ready, he opened the sluice at one entrance of the stable, so that the water poured in a flood through the whole building, and out at a gate on the other side. And it had all been so managed that when the river had poured through, and was shut off again, all the filth and litter had been carried away by the Alpheus underground, and the stable had been washed clean, without a scrap of refuse to be found anywhere. For the Alpheus you must know, did not run into the sea, like other rivers. It disappeared down a deep chasm, then ran through a natural tunnel under the sea, and rose again, far away, in the island of Sicily, where it had brought to Ceres the news from underground. Thus everything thrown into it in Elis came up again in Sicily—and the Sicilians must have been considerably astonished at that extraordinary eruption of stable litter. Perhaps it is that which, acting as manure, has helped to make Sicily so fertile.
Hercules made a point of claiming his price. But Augeas said:—
"Nonsense! A bargain is a bargain. You undertook to clean my stable: and you have done nothing of the kind. No work, no pay."
"What can you mean?" asked Hercules. "Surely I have cleaned your stable—you will not find in it a broken straw."
"No," said Augeas. "It was the Alpheus did that: not you."
"But it was I who used the Alpheus—"
"Yes; no doubt. But the impudence of expecting me to pay a tenth of all my flocks and herds for an idea so simple that I should have thought of it myself, if you hadn't, just by chance, happened to think of it before me! You have not earned your wages. You cleaned the stable by an unfair trick: and it was the river cleaned it—not you."
"Very well," said Hercules grimly. "If you had paid me honestly, I would have given you your goats and your oxen back again; for, as I told you, I do not serve for reward. But now I perceive that I have not quite cleaned your stable. There is still one piece of dirt left in it—and that is a cheating knave, Augeas by name. So, as I cannot go back to Mycenæ till my work is done—"
He was about to throw Augeas into the river, to follow the rest of the litter: and about what afterwards happened, different people tell different things. I very strongly agree, however, with those who tell that Hercules spared the life of Augeas after having given him a lesson: for certainly he was not worth the killing. And I am the more sure of this because, after his death, Augeas was honored as hero—which surely would not have happened if he had not learned to keep both his stables and his promises clean before he died.