Gods and Heroes  by Robert Edward Francillon

The Golden Fleece

Part 2 of 2

"Some one has been betraying me," thought the king angrily. But he hid his anger, and said: "You have done very well so far. I am sorry to say, however, that the Golden Fleece has other guards. Do you see these serpents' teeth? You must sow these in the furrow you have made with your plough—and then the gods help you if they can."

So Jason, having finished his ploughing, sowed the serpents' teeth as if they were seeds of corn. And then from that seed sprang up, in less than an hour, a strange harvest—an army of giants, as many as the stalks of wheat in a wide field, who rushed upon Jason and the Greeks, and trampled them to the ground.

And every one of them would have been slain had not Jason bethought him of Medea's sling and stone. Aiming at the chief of the giants, he let fly, and straightway the army vanished like the phantoms of a dream.

The king began to be afraid, for he was coming to an end of his spells. He felt sure he had been betrayed, but could not guess the traitor. But again he pretended friendship, and said: "That, too, was very well done. I see there is something in you Greeks, after all. But it grieves me to the heart to tell you that the most terrible guards of the Golden Fleece still remain—a mighty dragon that never sleeps, but watches the Fleece night and day. If you can kill him—why then—"

"I can but try," said Jason. So he and his comrades were guided by winding paths to the foot of a tree on which hung the Golden Fleece, splendid in the sun. But at the foot of the tree was a dragon that could have devoured ten times as many, armor and all, with one crunch of his jaws. And he breathed forth such fiery pestilence that none could come near.

Truly it seemed at last as if the adventure was to be in vain.

But, at midnight, Medea came to Jason as before, and gave him another herb, and said, "Take this—and remember your vow."

Jason was not thinking of the vow, but only of the dragon. The next morning he set forth alone, and having found his way to the tree, waved the herb before the monster. No sooner had the smell of it reached its nostrils than its eyes began to droop and close, and presently the ever-watchful dragon was sleeping soundly. Instantly Jason darted past him, snatched the Golden Fleece from the tree, and hastening back to the palace, displayed it before the king's astonished eyes.

"Seize the robber!" cried King Æetes, to his guards. But he had come to an end of his enchantments: Jason's comrades rallied round their captain with drawn swords, and made for the shore.

The king raved and stormed. "Fetch Medea to me," he cried; "she shall raise such a tempest as will sink the foreign pirates to the bottom of the sea." But even as he spoke, in ran one of the slaves with the news—

"The Princess Medea—the Greeks are carrying her away!"

"Medea—against her will? No!" cried the king, who now knew who had betrayed him. "There is no power on earth that could make her  captive, or carry her away unless she chose to go. Absyrtus," he said, turning to his son, "hasten after those brigands, and bid your sister return, and I will follow with my whole army to cut them off from their ship and destroy them all."

The news was true: Medea was so passionately in love with Jason that she had forgotten her father and her country, and was even now guiding the Greeks back to where the Argo  lay. But, great enchantress though she was, she was not all-powerful, and she knew that her spells would be in vain against her own people. And her father and her brother knew this too.

Her ears were quick, however; and while the Greeks were still far from the shore, she heard the footsteps of Absyrtus swiftly tracking them; and what was worse, she heard, further off, a tramp and clash, which told her that the whole Colchian army was in pursuit at full speed.

"Hasten on," she said to Jason. "I will wait here."

So, while he and the Greeks pressed forward, she faced round and stood in the middle of the path until Absyrtus came up with her. Before he could utter a word, she plunged a dagger into her brother's heart, cut off his head and limbs, and then slowly followed Jason, dropping a bleeding limb in the path every few yards.

Things happened just as she intended. When King Æetes, riding fast at the head of his horsemen, saw his son's head lying in the path before him, he threw himself from his horse with a cry of grief; and seeing what lay further along the ground, forgot everything else, even the Golden Fleece, in his sorrow. The cruel witch, Medea, had foreseen that her father would never leave the remains of his dead son ungathered and unburied by the wayside, for the advancing horses to trample and for the vultures to devour. King Æetes was so long in seeking for the last limb that, by the time it was found, Jason and the Greeks had reached their ship and had set sail, and Medea with them.

But the murder of Absyrtus seemed to cling like a curse to the Argo, and to keep her from coming home. Driven out of her course by storms and contrary winds, she wandered into unknown oceans, drifting even so far as the wild and desolate islands of Britain, in the mysterious Northern Sea. The Argonauts narrowly escaped being devoured, ship and all, by the horrible sea-fiend Scylla, with twelve feet, six hideous heads, each with three rows of teeth, and a body made of barking dogs, who sits upon a rock and watches for sailors. And, just avoiding her jaws, they nearly fell into the whirlpool of Charybdis, another sea-fiend, so close to Scylla that it was hardly possible to escape one without being destroyed by the other. They passed the island of the Sirens, of whom you read in the story of Neptune, and would have fallen victims to their singing had not Orpheus made such music on his lyre that the Sirens ceased their own song to listen, and let the ship pass by.

I do not know what Medea was doing all this while. Perhaps she was powerful only on land; perhaps she could do nothing without her magic herbs; perhaps her passion for Jason had made her weak; perhaps she felt some touch of remorse; perhaps her wicked witch-craft was of no effect in the presence of Æsculapius, who, knowing more magic even than she, used his knowledge for helping and healing. But I do know that Jason was beginning to suffer sorely because of the vow he had made of his faith and life to Medea, and to feel that murder and black magic, and a wife whom he dreaded and did not love, were too high a price to pay even for glory. He was not like Perseus, who had warred against evil with the weapons of the gods: Jason had sought only his own glory, and had gained it by means hateful to gods and men.

But his comrades knew nothing of all this—to them he was a hero of heroes, and they made the wanderings of the Argo  famous for something better than narrow escapes from peril. They cleared the sea of pirates—a work in which Castor and Pollux especially distinguished themselves; and they righted many wrongs, and carried the knowledge of the gods among far away barbarian tribes. And at last they saw once more the coast of Greece; at last they touched the land of Călydon, where the father of Meleager, one of the Argonauts whom I have already named, was king.

Now this Meleager had a charmed life. The three Fates had been present at his birth—the first had given him courage; the second, strength; but the third had decreed that he should live only so long as a log of wood, then burning upon the hearth, should remain unconsumed. So his mother, Althæa, had forthwith snatched the brand from the burning, and had kept it with care, because upon it depended the life of her son. Meleager welcomed Jason and his companions to Calydon; but they no sooner landed than they heard evil news. The whole country was being laid waste by a huge boar, which not even armies could kill.

Here was another adventure for the Argonauts. They proclaimed a great hunt, and tracked the boar, through mountains and forests, to his very den. In front of the hunters were Meleager; but next to him came Atalanta—that famous huntress, swift-footed as Diana, who had sailed with the Argonauts in the disguise of a man, and had betrothed herself to Meleager while they were homeward bound. They followed the rest, vying with each other which should be foremost; and besides the Argonauts were the princes and nobles of Calydon, led by the two brothers of Althæa, who still kept the fatal fire-brand secure.

They drove the boar to bay at last, and, after a desperate struggle, Meleager gave it its death-blow. All his companions rejoiced at his good fortune; but when he gave the boar's head, as a trophy, to Atalanta, the two brothers of Althæa stood forth and said:—

"It is not right to give such honor to a woman—a woman who has no more right to it than we. Such trophies are for men!"

So saying, they tried to seize it from her. But Meleager, enraged at the insult to Atalanta, defended her with his sword, and so unfortunately well that both his uncles were slain.

Althæa, watching from her window for the return of the hunters, at last saw them pass mournfully, bearing the bodies of her dead brothers. "Who has done this?" she cried; and being told it was Meleager, she cursed him, and, in her grief and passion, threw the fatal brand upon the hearth, where it was caught by a flame. Meleager, though still far off, was forthwith seized with scorching pains in all his limbs. As the brand burned, so he burned also, and when it was consumed, a flame seemed to clutch his heart, and he fell dead in Atalanta's arms.

Althæa, overwhelmed, when it was too late, with horror at the result of her rage, slew herself with her own hand. And such was the miserable ending of the Hunt of Calydon.

The Argonauts, having now returned to Greece, parted, and went each to his own home. Jason drew the Argo  on shore near Corinth, consecrating it to Neptune, and leaving it there as a monument of so famous a voyage. Then he returned to Iolcos, bringing the Golden Fleece with him.

He was received with triumph and rejoicing, and a great feast was prepared to welcome him home. But, to his sorrow, he found his father Æson so enfeebled by old age as not to be able to be present at the festival.

"Do not trouble yourself about that," said Medea. "Let Æson only put himself in my hands, and he shall be as young as you."

Jason, knowing his wife's power, consented. So she drew all the blood out of Æson's veins, and filled them with the juice of certain herbs; and he came to the festival as young-looking and as vigorous as his own son.

But Pelias, the usurper, who hated Jason, was getting old, too; and his daughters, when they saw what had happened to Æson, besought Medea that she would make their father also young and strong again.

"You need not come to me for that," said she. "You can do it for yourselves when I have shown you how."

So she killed an old ram, cut him up, and boiled the pieces in a caldron into which she had secretly thrown some herbs. When the water was cold, out from the caldron skipped a young lamb, and frisked away.

The whole thing looked so easy that the daughters of Pelias, that very night, prepared a caldron; and, when the water boiled, killed their father, divided him limb from limb, and threw in the pieces, just as Medea had done with the ram. But nothing happened, though they waited till the flesh had boiled away from the bones.

They hastened to Medea to help them. But she received them with scorn.

"Murderesses!" she exclaimed, "and fools! It is you who butchered Pelias; it is you who must make him live again, if you can. His death is on your hands; not on mine."

Thus Jason was delivered from his enemy. But the manner of his deliverance got about among the people. They rose up against Medea, and drove her out of the city; and Jason had to follow her to whom he had sold his soul for glory.

He had never loved her; and now his fear of her was turning into hate, and the hate into loathing and horror. All the wickednesses and cruelties she had committed for his sake seemed to have become his own, and to be so many curses upon him. And even her magic had not prospered, seeing that it had cost him the kingdom he might have gained by fair means, and had driven him into exile. His only comfort was in their two children, whom he loved dearly; and at last he could bear life with the terrible Medea no longer. He determined to divorce her; to take the children away from such a mother; and to take another wife whom he could love, and who would not be a terror to him.

Such a wife he found in Creusa, a princess of Corinth. But he was terribly mistaken if he thought he could break the vow he had made to Medea at the altar of Hecate, the Witch-Queen.

Medea affected to be quite content with what had been arranged. She sent Creusa a wedding-dress, and had her children brought to her to bid them farewell. The feast was at its height, and Jason was rejoicing in his freedom, when a cold cloud seemed to come over the guests; and there stood Medea, dark and stern, leading her two children by the hand.

"Traitor and perjurer!" she said to Jason, so that all the guests could hear. "Is this your return for the love I have given you; for the country I left for you; for the sins I have done for you—sins that you took the fruits of, but were too cowardly to do? I have given you to the last moment to prove your faith; and now the last moment has gone. As you choose to be bound to me no longer, my own hands shall destroy the last links that bind you and me."

So saying, like the tigress she was, she took up the children and dashed them dead upon the floor. At the same moment Creusa shrieked with the agony of the poisoned robe that was clinging to her and destroying her. Jason rushed upon Medea with his sword. But before he could reach her, a chariot drawn by flying dragons, none knew whence, had borne her away, none knew whither, through the air.

Jason, from that time, seemed haunted by the Furies. He wandered aimlessly about the world, unable to rest, until one day his eyes fell upon the ship Argo, still reposing peacefully upon the shore. One may imagine all the things the sight brought to his mind—his old dreams of glory; the unholy vow which had seemed to fulfill them; the weakness and the unfaithfulness which had destroyed them, and him, and others through him. Doubtless, he then saw in Medea not so much the cruel witch as the evil of his own heart, which had taken shape and form and had become a curse from which he could not get free. "If I could only rest like you!" he cried out, falling on his knees before the ship with bowed head and clasped hands. And it seemed as if the Argo  heard her old captain's prayer. A yard dropped from the mainmast upon his bowed head: and ship and captain lay at rest together.