Well was it for Perseus that he remembered what would happen to him if he looked at Medusa. And yet how in the world was he to fight her without looking at her? That was a puzzle indeed. Suddenly he bethought himself of Minerva's shield, which was polished like a mirror. He turned it towards Medusa, and saw, not herself indeed, but her reflection in the polished shield, which did just as well.
She was indeed a monster—more terrible even than he had expected. She was of gigantic size, hideous and cruel in face, with the scales and wings of a dragon, horrible claws, and hundreds of writhing and hissing snakes on her head instead of hair. No wonder that anybody who looked on her was turned at once into stone. Perseus, wearing his helmet, and guiding himself by his mirror, from which he never moved his eyes, drew his diamond blade, sprang upon the monster, gave one stroke just between her chin and where her scales began, and, in a single moment, her hideous head was rolling on the sand. The snakes gave one last hiss, and the deed was done.
Still keeping his eyes turned away, Perseus, by using his mirror, found the head, which he slung out of his sight behind him. Scarcely had he done this when he heard again the sound of wings, like a great wind—the sisters of Medusa, the other two Gorgons, were flying over the lake like hurricanes to take vengeance upon her slayer. They could not see Perseus himself, because of his helmet; but they saw their sister's head at his back, and could thus swoop down upon him. But Perseus, remembering his winged sandals, sprang up into the air, and off he flew, with the raging Gorgons after him.
It was a terrible race! Perseus would not throw away the head, though it left such a track behind him. For from one of the splashes of blood which fell upon the earth sprang the giant Chrysaor, armed with a golden sword; from another leaped into life the winged horse Pegasus, who immediately darted off through the air and never stopped until he alighted among the Muses upon Mount Helicon; the smaller drops of blood as they fell became countless serpents, and all manner of loathsome crawling things. On and on Perseus flew, not knowing whither, like one hunted in some horrible dream, till his strength failed him, and he came down to earth, swiftly and half fainting.
When he opened his eyes and raised himself from the ground, he found himself in the most beautiful garden he had ever seen, full of trees laden with fruits of gold. But before him stood a huge giant, so tall that his head was above the clouds. The giant stooped till Perseus could see his face, and said in a voice of thunder:—
"I am Atlas, King of Mauritania! How has a miserable pigmy like you passed the dragon who guards the gate of the garden of golden apples, and entered in?"
"Then from you, as king of this land," said Perseus, "I claim shelter and protection in my father's name! For the avengers of blood are following after me to kill me."
"You are safe with me," said Atlas. "But who is your father, that you claim shelter and protection in his name?"
"My name is Perseus," said Perseus, proudly, "and I am the son of Jupiter, the king of gods and men!"
"Of Jupiter?" thundered Atlas. "Then—prepare to die!"
"You would kill a son of Jupiter?" asked Perseus, amazed.
"Ay, and any son of Jupiter who comes in my way! For hath it not been foretold that by a son of Jupiter shall I be robbed of my golden apples? For what else are you here? Son of Jupiter, once more, prepare to die!" And so saying, he lifted his enormous arm, one blow of which would have swept away ten thousand men as if they were a swarm of flies.
Perseus gave himself up for lost, for he had no more chance against Atlas than a beetle would have against an elephant. However, like a brave knight, he resolved to die fighting: he drew his sword and grasped his shield—at least what he meant to be his shield; for it chanced to be Medusa's head which he brought from behind his shoulder and held up before the giant. Down came the huge right arm of Atlas to crush him. But even in death the head did its work. No sooner were Medusa's staring eyes turned upon the giant than all in a moment his limbs stiffened, and he became a vast mountain of stone, with its head above the clouds. And there stands Mount Atlas to this day.
Thankful for his wonderful escape, Perseus, without taking a single golden apple, continued his journey, no longer pursued by the Gorgons, who had doubtless lost trace of him. Leaving Mauritania, he recrossed the great Libyan desert, and traveled on and on until he reached the coast of Ethiopia, and entered a great city on the seashore.
But though the place was evidently great and rich, the whole air seemed full of sadness and gloom. The people went about silent and sighing, and altogether so woe-begone that they had no attention to spare for a stranger. When he reached the king's palace the signs of mourning were deeper still: it was like entering a tomb, all was so plunged in speechless sorrow.
"What is the matter?" asked Perseus at last, seizing a passing servant by the arm, and compelling him to listen. "Is it the death of the king?"
"Ah, if it were only that!" said the man. "But no; King Cepheus is alive and well. Alas, and woe is me!" And so once more he fell to wailing, and passed on.
Thus over and over again Perseus vainly sought an answer, getting nothing but tears and groans. And so, none heeding him, he went on till he reached a chamber where sat the king himself in the midst of his court; and here was the deepest mourning of all.
"I perceive you are a stranger," said King Cepheus. "Pardon us if we have seemed inhospitable and unlike the Æthiopians, the friends of the gods; it is not our way. But," he continued, the tears flowing as he spoke, "if you knew, you would understand."
"Let me know," said Perseus gently, for he was filled with pity for the king's tears.
"My daughter, the Princess Andrŏmĕda," answered the king, "is condemned to a horrible death; I know not whether she is yet alive."
"How," asked Perseus, "can a king's daughter be condemned to death against her father's will?"
"No wonder it sounds strange," answered Cepheus; "but listen: Andromeda is my only child. For some reason—I know not what—the gods have permitted the land to be ravaged by a monster which came out of the sea, whose very breath is a blight and a pestilence, and which spares neither man, woman, nor child. Not one of us is left without cause to mourn. Fearing the destruction of all my people, I asked of the great oracle of Ammon in what way the work of the monster could be stayed. Alas! the oracle declared that nothing would avail but delivering up Andromeda herself to its fury to be devoured. What could I do? Could I doom all my people to lose all their children for the sake of my own? There was but one thing for a king, who is the father of all his people, to do: and even now—" But he could say no more.
"Oracle or no oracle," said Perseus, "it shall not be while I am alive! Where is the princess?"
"She was chained at sunrise to a rock on the seashore, there to wait for the monster. But where she is now—"
Perseus did not wait for another word, but, leaving the palace, hurried alone the shore, already half covered by the rising tide, helping himself over the difficult places by the wings at his heels. At last he came to what made his heart beat and burn with pity and rage. Chained by her wrists to a pillar of rock was the most beautiful of all princesses, stripped naked, but for the long hair that fell over her shoulders, and for the rising waves, which were already nearly waist-high. But what struck Perseus most was her look of quiet courage and noble pride—the look of one who was devoting herself to a cruel death for the country's sake, and in order that others might be saved.
The whole heart of Perseus went out to her: he vowed, if he could not save her, to share her doom. But before he could reach her side, a huge black wave parted, and forth came the monster—a creature like nothing else of land or sea, with a bloated, shapeless body, studded with hungry, cruel eyes, and hundreds of long, slimy limbs, twisting and crawling, each with a yawning mouth, from which streamed livid fire and horrible fumes. Andromeda turned pale as the loathsome creature came on with a slowness more dreadful than speed. Perseus could not wait. Springing from the rock with his wings, he threw himself, like lightning, full upon the monster, and then began such a struggle as had never been seen before. The creature twined its limbs around Perseus, and tried to crush him. As soon as Perseus tore himself from one, he was clutched by another, while the pulpy mass seemed proof against thrusts or blows.
Perseus felt his life passing from him; he put all the strength left him into one last blow. It fell only on the monster's right shoulder. But that was the one place where it could be pierced. The coils relaxed, and Perseus, to his own amaze, saw the monster floating, a shapeless corpse, upon the waves.
Having released Andromeda, who had watched the struggle in an agony of dread for what had seemed the certain fate of her champion, he carried her back through the air to her father's palace; and I need not tell how the mourning turned into wonder and joy!
"What can I do to show my gratitude?" asked Cepheus of Perseus. "Ask of me whatever you will, and it shall be yours, on the word of a king!"
"Give me Andromeda to be my wife," said Perseus. "That is all I want in the world."
"Gladly," said Cepheus; but suddenly he became grave. "I have promised on the word of a king, which cannot be broken. But I must warn you that you are not the first in the field. Andromeda has long been claimed in marriage by the powerful Prince Phineus: and he is not the man to lose what he wants without giving trouble."
"He never gave any trouble to the monster," said Perseus, thinking that Cepheus, though kind and honorable, was rather a weak and timid sort of king. So the marriage of Perseus and Andromeda was settled, to the great joy of both; and all the nobles were invited to a great festival in honor of the wedding, and of the delivery of the land. The Æthiopians were famous for their feasts,—so much so that the gods themselves would often leave the nectar and ambrosia of Olympus to be guests at their tables.
Everything went on very happily, when in the very midst of the banquet was heard the clash of arms; and those who were nearest the door cried out that Prince Phineus had come with an army to carry off the bride.
"Do not be alarmed," said Perseus. "Only let everybody shut his eyes until I bid him open them again."
It seemed an odd order; but Cepheus and all his Court had such faith in Perseus that they instantly obeyed him, and all shut their eyes. Perseus, especially bidding Andromeda close hers, drew forth Medusa's head, turning the face towards the door. And when, at his bidding, Cepheus and the rest opened their eyes and looked, they saw Phineus and his army all turned into statues of stone.
After resting from his adventures at the Court of King Cepheus, Perseus set sail with Andromeda, in one of the king's ships, for Seriphus, where they arrived after a safe and pleasant voyage. He was impatient to see his mother again, and to show King Polydectes how well he had done his errand. On reaching Seriphus, he left Andromeda in the ship, while he went alone on shore to see how things had gone while he had been away.
His way to the palace led him past the temple of Minerva, at the gate of which he found great confusion. Forcing his way through the crowd, he entered, and was astonished to see his mother, Danae, crouching in terror by the altar, with Dictys the fisherman standing before her, and defending her from King Polydectes and his guards, who were crowding the temple. Clearing his way to the altar-steps, Perseus heard hurriedly from Dictys what was happening: how the king, taking advantage of his absence, had been persecuting Danae to marry him against her will, and had at last driven her into the temple to make her his wife by force. Dictys alone had come to her rescue; but what could one man do against the king and all his guards?
"And now you have come," sighed Dictys, "you will be slain too. See, they are coming on!"
"You sent me to slay Medusa, King Polydectes," cried Perseus. "See how well I have obeyed you!"
So saying, he held up the fatal head; and the king and his guards forthwith became stone. Thus was Polydectes destroyed by his own treachery.
The people desired to make Perseus king; but he had a longing to pay a visit to the land of Argos, where he had been born, but which he had never seen. So he made Dictys the fisherman King of Seriphus, thinking that kindness, courage, and faithfulness were the chief things to be looked for in the choice of a ruler, and set sail for Argos with his wife and mother.
Of course nobody there knew any of them; for Perseus had left the country when a child in arms, and Danae had spent her girlhood shut up in a brazen tower. It so happened that, when they reached land, the people of Larissa were celebrating some solemn games in honor of their king, who had just died—wrestling, racing, and so forth; and Perseus, hearing the news, went round by way of Larissa to take part in them.
Having shown himself best in every spot, he joined in a game of quoits, in which, as always, he found himself without a rival. Having outdone all others, he thought he would outdo even himself; and, taking up the heaviest quoit, he cast it so far that it passed over the heads of the circle of spectators, so that none could see where it fell—
Until they were startled by a cry which made the people crowd to where an old man had fallen from his seat, and now lay dead upon the ground. The quoit had struck him on the head, and—
"Fly!" cried those who stood about Perseus. "It is Acrisius, King of Argos, whom your unlucky quoit has killed!"
And thus came to pass what had been foretold at the beginning—King Acrisius had been slain by his daughter's son.
As for Perseus, whose adventures were now at an end, he refused the kingdom of Argos, which had come to him in such an unfortunate manner, and, traveling further into Greece, built a city and made a kingdom for himself, which he called Mycenæ. Here, with Andromeda and Danae, he lived in peace and happiness, ruling so well and wisely that when he died he was made a demigod, and admitted into Olympus. There are two constellations which are still called Perseus and Andromeda. The Gorgon's head he consecrated to Minerva, who fixed it in the middle of her shield, where it still retained its power of turning the enemies of the goddess of Wisdom into blocks of stone.
I expect that one part of this story has reminded you of how St. George of England rescued the Princess Sabra from the dragon. Well, there is this great likeness among all good knights, that they have the help of heaven, because they would be equally good and brave whether they had such help or no.