I DARESAY you have forgotten—for it is a long way back—the name of Admētus, that King of Pheræ in Thessaly, whom Apollo, when banished from heaven, served as a shepherd for nine years. Admetus did not know that it was a god whom he had to keep his sheep; but he was so good and kind a master that Apollo, revealing himself at the end of his exile, bade him name any boon he desired, and it should be granted.
There is no such difficult question in the world to answer as that. Admetus answered, "Grant that I may never die."
But that is the one thing which not even the gods can grant to mortal men. The very cause of Apollo's having been banished to earth was his killing the Cyclops for forging the thunderbolt with which Jupiter had killed Æsculapius for making dead men live again. Not even the Fates could change that law even for the sake of Apollo. But they said, "Admetus shall live so long as he can find somebody else to die instead of him whenever his death-time comes," which was all they could allow.
After the return of Apollo to heaven, Admetus lived on in great happiness and welfare. He was one of the Argonauts; and he took part in the hunting of the Calydonian boar. He had fallen in love with Alcestis, the beautiful daughter of that King Pelias of whom you read in the story of the Golden Fleece, whose hand had been promised to the man who should come for her in a chariot drawn by a wild boar and a lion. This Admetus did; and in this chariot he drove her back to his own kingdom of Pheræ, where he made her his queen. And there they lived in great love and happiness for many years.
But the day came at last which had been appointed to Admetus for his death-time. Then Admetus, remembering the promise of the Fates, and not able to bear losing the happiness of living, thus besought his old father, Pheres—
"Father, you are already old and near to death; you have lived your life; it matters nothing to you whether your old age lasts a year less or a year more. What you now call life is only weariness and pain. But I am still young and strong, with the best part of my life still unlived, and my children ungrown, and my kingdom to govern: I beseech you to die for me, so that I also may live to be as old and as wise as you."
But his father answered: "No, my son; life is precious, even when one is old. The nearer we approach the cold dark grave, the dearer grow the sunshine and the living air. I will do anything else for you, but not die."
Then Admetus besought Clymēne, his mother—
"Mother, you are old and weak, and a woman; I am young and strong, and a man. What is such life as yours compared with mine? I beseech you to die for me: let not a mother doom to death her own child."
But his mother answered: "No, my son; he who loves his life as you love it, and fears death as you fear it, is not one for whom even his mother ought to die."
Then Admetus besought all his friends and kinsmen but all were deaf to him. For well the Fates had known that their promise would be in vain. But at last his dear and beautiful wife Alcestis came to him, and said—
"I will die for you, and gladly!" Ah, those Fates do not know everything after all!
Admetus, with all his selfishness, had never thought of sacrificing his wife; and he was overcome with horror. He prayed that Apollo's gift might be taken back; but the Fates are not to be played fast and loose with in that way, and they were angry perhaps at finding themselves baffled by a mere loving woman. Alcestis had to die instead of Admetus; and so she died, as she had said, proudly and gladly.
Now that it was too late, her husband was broken-hearted at having caused his wife's death for the sake of what had been but a selfish whim. All he could do for her in return was honor her love and devotion by a splendid funeral, to which people came from far and near to cover her grave with flowers.
Alcestis was buried, and the farewell hymn was being sung, when there thrust his way, rather roughly, through the crowded temple a stranger of mighty build, carrying a club, and clad with a lion's skin, seemingly the worse for wine. Admetus was too absorbed in his grief to notice this rude intrusion; but some of the bystanders cried shame on the stranger, and one of the priests came in his way, and said sternly—
"Who are you that dare to trouble grief like ours?"
"Who am I? Why, the servant of Eurystheus, King of Argos and Mycenæ. Is this how you receive strangers in your land? I had heard that Admetus of Pheræ is the most generous of kings, and Alcestis the most gracious of queens; and here I find you all like ghosts at a funeral. Where is the king?"
"There stands the king," said the priest, solemnly. And then he told the stranger the story which many a poet has told since—the story of how strong true love is, and how foolish it is to measure life by the number of its years.
Hercules—for he the stranger was—was sobered in a moment. "It is a shame!" he exclaimed, bringing down his club on the floor. "Fates or no fates, it shall not be! I am bound to Hades on an errand for my own king, and I will not come back unless I do a better one for yours."
So, leaving them all offended at what they took for a drunken boast, he dropped into the open grave: the people only thinking that he had passed from the temple somewhat suddenly. Hence he followed the passage taken by the queen's soul till he reached the Styx; and hard work must poor old Charon have had to row across such a weight as Hercules instead of the ghosts to which he was accustomed. On he went, finding his way as best he could without a guide, until, chancing upon the black gate of Tartarus, there growled in the middle of his path the three-headed dog Cerberus, with flashing eyes and flaming jaws.
Orpheus, you remember, had quieted Cerberus with the music of his lute: Hercules, going to work in other fashion, brought down his club upon one of the dog's skulls in a way that bewildered the other two. Then, seizing the monster by the throat, and in spite of its furious struggles, he fairly dragged it along with him by sheer strength, even into the very presence of Pluto and Proserpine.
"And," he cried, "god and goddess though you are, I will brain this dog of yours upon the steps of your throne unless you surrender to me the soul of Alcestis, that I may deliver her from death, and lead her back into life again."
It was an unheard-of thing that a man should thus take Hades by storm, and dictate terms to its king and queen. But for that moment I verily believe that Hercules became more than man—nay, more than Alcestis, because, while she had betaken herself to Elysium for the love of one who was dear to her, he had dared the torments of Tartarus out of pity for strangers and hate of wrong. Nay, I think it was truly this which had made his grip so fast on the dog's throat, and his club so heavy on the dog's three skulls; and this that made a mortal stand as their master before even Pluto and Proserpine.
"In the name of all the gods," said Pluto, "take the woman, and begone."
Then Alcestis appeared—a mere gray shade, the touch of whose hand was but like a film of gossamer. But as he dragged the less and less struggling Cerberus with one hand, and led her with the other, her shade took color and formed, and her fingers tightened upon his, until the living Alcestis, more beautiful than before, stepped with him out of her still open grave, and threw herself into her husband's arms.
Hercules did not wait for thanks; indeed, with Cerberus still on his hands, his only thought was to hurry back to Mycenæ. It is the strangest picture one can think of—a man dragging along the three-headed dog of Hades in the open light of day. It was one long strain on his whole strength, all day and all night long, for many nights and days. But he reached Mycenæ at last—and into his brazen pot leaped Eurystheus in the twinkling of an eye.
"I have brought him," said Hercules. "Cerberus is yours."
"Then," cried Eurystheus, as well as his terror would let him, "be off with you, Cerberus and all. Never more be servant of mine; never let me see your face or hear of you again!"
Thus Hercules, by obedient service, won his freedom, and his great penance was fulfilled. And the first use he made of freedom was to give it to Cerberus, who straightway, with a terrible howl, plunged into the earth, and disappeared.