THE stag of Œnoe was sacred to Diana; and no wonder, for besides being so swift that no horse or hound could follow it, it had brazen feet and horns of pure gold. Of course this labor was not so dangerous as the others, but apparently more utterly impossible.
Impossible as it was, however, Hercules had to try. Had he been ordered to bring the stag to Mycenæ dead, he might perhaps hope to catch it with an arrow; but his orders were to bring it alive. So, having started it from its lair, he followed it with his utmost speed and skill. At first he tried to run it down; but the stag was not only the swifter, but had as much endurance as he. Then he tried to drive it to bay, but it always managed to escape out of the seemingly most hopeless corners. He tried to catch it asleep; but his slightest and most distant movement startled it, and off it raced again. All the arts of the deer-stalker he put in practice, but all in vain. And thus he hunted the stag of Œnoe, scarce resting day and night for a whole year. It looked as if he were to spend the rest of his life in pursuing what was not to be caught by mortal man; and the worst of it was that, while there was real use in destroying wild beasts and monsters, like the lion and the Hydra, his present labor, even if it succeeded, would be of no use at all.
Still it had to be attempted; and I suppose you have guessed that he succeeded, and that it was in some wonderful way. Well—he did succeed at last, but it was not in a wonderful way at all. It was just by not giving in. One of the two had to give in, and it was not Hercules. One day he managed to drive the stag into a trap and to seize it by the horns.
As he was returning to Mycenæ, dragging the stag, he met a tall and beautiful woman, dressed for the chase, and carrying a bow and quiver. As soon as her eyes fell upon the struggling stag she frowned terribly.
"What mortal are you," she asked, "who have dared to lay hands on my own stag, the stag sacred to me, who am Diana? Loose it, and let it go."
Hercules sighed. "I would do so gladly, great goddess," he answered; "but it is not in my power."
"Not in your power to open your hand?" she asked, in angry surprise. "We will soon see that," and she seized her stag by the other horn to pull it away.
"It goes against me," said Hercules, "to oppose a goddess; but I have got to bring this stag to Mycenæ, and neither gods nor men shall prevent me, so long as I am alive."
"I am Diana," she said again, "and I command you to let the stag go."
"And I," said he, "am only Hercules, the servant of Eurystheus, and therefore I cannot let it go."
"Then I wish," said Diana, "that any of the gods had so faithful a servant as Eurystheus has! So you are Hercules?" she said, her frown changing to a smile. "Then I give you the stag, for the sake of the oracle of my brother Apollo. I am only a goddess; you are a man who has conquered himself, and whom therefore even the gods must obey."
So saying, she vanished. And the stag no longer struggled for freedom, but followed Hercules to Mycenæ as gently and lovingly as a tame fawn.