THE chase of the stag—with the golden horns had taken so long that Eurystheus was beginning to give Hercules up for lost: and he was not sorry, for he was becoming more and more afraid of the man who only lived to do his bidding. He could not but think that his cousin must be playing some deep and underhand game. So when Hercules came back, with the stag following tamely at heel, he hid himself again, and by way of welcome bade Hercules capture and bring him, alive, a very different sort of wild beast—not a harmless stag, but the great and fierce wild boar which had its den in the mountains of Erymanthus, and ravaged the country round.
Hercules was getting weary of these labors, to which he saw no end. Not for a moment did he think of disobeying, but he set out with a heavy heart, and with some rising bitterness against his taskmaster. His way to the mountains of Erymanthus lay through the country of the Centaurs, and of his old teacher, Chiron.
Here he halted at the dwelling of one of the Centaurs, Pholus who received him kindly. But Hercules was feeling fairly worn out in spirit, and Pholus failed to cheer him.
"What is the use of it all?" he complained. "No doubt the gods are just, and ought to be obeyed; but they are not kind. Why did they send me into the world, and give me strength, only to go about after wild beasts at the bidding of a coward? Why did they give me passions, only to have the trouble of keeping them down? If I had been like other men—as weak and as cold-blooded as they are—I should have been happy, and perhaps done some real good, and at any rate lived my own life in my own way. It isn't as if I cared for glory, but I do want a little peace and pleasure. Come, Pholus let me have some wine: I want it, and let it be in plenty!"
"I am very sorry," said Pholus, "I have no wine."
"Why, what is that, then?" asked Hercules, pointing to a big barrel in the corner.
"That is wine," said Pholus; "but I can't give you any of it, because it is not my own. It belongs to all the Centaurs; and, as it is public property, nobody may take any of it without the leave of the whole tribe."
"Nonsense!" said Hercules. "Wine I want, and wine I'll have."
So saying, he stove in the head of the cask with a single blow of his fist, and, dipping and filling a goblet, began to drink eagerly.
The wine soon began to warm his blood and raise his heart. After the first cup or two, the cloud which had been falling over him rolled away, and life again seemed worth living for its own sake, and not only for duty's. But he did not stop at two cups, nor at three; nor even when it began to mount into his brain, and to bring back those wild instincts which he thought he had left behind him in the Temple of Apollo.
Meanwhile the news had spread among the Centaurs that Hercules was among them, and making free with the public wine. The odor of the broken cask brought a crowd of them at full gallop, and disturbed Hercules in the midst of his carouse.
"Do you call this hospitality, you savages?" he shouted, stumbling out of the house, and laying about him with his club freely among the crowd, while Pholus, vainly tried to prevent mischief. Down went Centaur after Centaur, till those who were uninjured galloped away panic-stricken, Pholus himself being among the slain.
"To Chiron!" cried the Centaurs; "he will know how to deal with this madman."
They rode as hard as they could to Chiron's dwelling, Hercules, furious with wine and anger, still pursuing. As they were outstripping him, he let fly his arrows among them; and, as evil luck would have it, at that very moment Chiron rode out from his gate to see what was happening, and to quiet the disorder, and one of the arrows struck him in the knee, and he fell.
Hercules became sober enough when he came up and found his old friend and teacher writhing in terrible agony; for the arrow was one which he had dipped in the deadly poison of the Hydra. He could only look on with remorse. Chiron knew him, and, when the agony passed away into death, gave him a look of forgiveness. What the wise Centaur's last word to his favorite pupil was, I know not; but I think it must have been something like: "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."
I will not try to think of what Hercules felt when he watched the burial of the friends whom he had slain in a fit of drunken passion, for no cause. However, his duty lay still before him, and it had become more clear. Never again would he complain of his fate, or question the justice of the gods, or think of the life which had been lent to him as if it were his own.
In due time, after a long and dangerous journey among the mountains, he came upon the den of the great wild boar which he was to capture alive. There was nothing to be done but to follow it as he had followed the stag, watching for a chance of trapping it unawares: and in the pursuit another whole year passed away. Then, in the middle of winter, there fell such a snow that the boar was unable to leave its den. Hercules forced his way through the snowed-up entrance, and tried to seize the brute as he had seized the Nemæan lion. The boar, however, rushed past him, and would have escaped again had not the snow hindered his running, and at last exhausted him. Hercules, though nearly exhausted himself, chose the right moment for closing with him, and, after a long struggle, bound him with a halter in such a manner that, in spite of its efforts, he could drag it by main strength down the mountain.
Once more Eurystheus had given Hercules up for lost: and the snow prevented him from hearing any news beforehand. So when, while he was standing at the city gate, there suddenly appeared before him, not only Hercules—all grim and rough from his year's hunting—but the largest and most savage wild boar in the world, looking ready to devour him, he was so terrified that he whisked like a frightened mouse into his pot, and did not dare come out again for seven days.
As for Chiron the Centaur, he became a constellation in heaven, where he is still to be seen. He was the teacher of nearly all the heroes and demi-gods: and after his death there seems to have been an end of them. There have been plenty of brave men since; but not like Castor and Pollux, Perseus, Theseus, and Hercules. Nor, since that fatal day, does one hear of the Centaurs any more. Thus did one passing fit of causeless anger, instantly repented of, destroy these wisest and most valiant creatures, and deprive the whole world of more than it has ever regained during thousands of years.
Hercules solemnly sacrificed the boar, and then took a little rest, meditating on all that had befallen. But his rest was not to be for long. For there was Eurystheus in his pot, trying to think of something that should keep him occupied forever.
And—"I have it!" he exclaimed at last, summoning Hercules by a stroke on his pot's brazen side.