H ELIOS, as you know, was the most famous charioteer that the world had ever seen. Just how long he had been driving the chariot of the Sun nobody could tell; but it must have been many, many years. People said that he had never done anything else; and the oldest inhabitant had no recollection of the time when he began. He never missed a day—not even Sunday; and on holidays he was always up and at it early, cracking his whip cheerily to waken the children. Starting from the home of the Dawn in the far, far East, he made a daily trip to the verge of Old Ocean's stream in the distant West. How it was that he always got back to his starting-point before the next morning was somewhat of a mystery. Nobody had ever seen him making his return trip, and hence all that men knew about it was guesswork. It matters very little to us, however; for that question has nothing to do with the story which I am going to tell.
The old charioteer always slept soundly in the morning, and seldom awoke until he heard his young sister, the maiden whom men call Aurora, rapping at the door of his bedroom, and making her voice echo through the halls of the Dawn.
"Up, up, brother Helios!" she would cry. "It is time for you to begin your journey again. Up, and delight the world once more with your shining morning face and your life-giving presence!"
Then Helios would hasten to the meadows where his steeds were feeding, and would call them each by name:
"Come hither, beautiful creatures! Hasten, for Aurora calleth. Eös, thou glowing one! Æthon, thou of the burning name! Brontë, thou thunderer! Sterope, thou swifter than lightning! Come quickly!"
The wing-footed steeds would obey. The servants would harness them to the golden car, and Aurora and the Morning Star would deck their manes with flowers and with wreaths of asphodel. Then Helios would step into the car and hold the long, yellow reins in his hands. A word from him and the proud team would leap into the sky; then they would soar above the mountain tops and mingle with the clouds, and grandly career in mid-air. And Helios, holding the reins steadily, would gently restrain them, or if they lagged would urge them forward with persuasive words. It was the grandest sight that men ever saw, and yet they never seemed to think much about it—perhaps because it was seen so often. If Helios had failed for a single day, what a wonderful hub-bub and fright there would have been!
The wife of Helios was a fair young lady named Clymene, who lived not far from the great sea, and who, according to some, was a nymph, but according to others a fisherman's daughter: and they had an only son named Phaëthon. Helios loved this son above all things else on earth; and he gave him many rich and noble gifts, and counseled him to be brave and wise, and especially to be contented with his lot in life. And Phaëthon grew to be a tall and comely lad, fond of his looking-glass, soft-handed, and proud of his ancestry. Some of his companions, who were only common mortals, liked to flatter him because of his supposed wealth, while there were many others who despised him because he affected to look up to the Sun.
"See the upstart who calls himself the son of Helios," sneered one.
"Ah, but he will have a sorry fall some of these days," said another.
"You are a pretty fellow to claim kinship with the charioteer of the Sun," said a worthless loafer whose name was Epaphos. "With your white face, and your yellow curls, and your slender hands, you are better fitted to help your mother at her spinning than to be a leader of men."
"But," said the boy, "my father Helios, who drives the burning chariot, and who—"
"Don't talk to me," interrupted the unmannerly fellow—"don't talk to me about your father the chariot-driver. Why, you would be frightened to death to drive your sister's goat-cart over the lawn; and you would shriek at the sight of a real horse. How dare you claim descent from the charioteer of the skies? Nonsense!"
"A pretty son of Helios, indeed!" laughed the other rowdies who were with Epaphos; and some young girls that were passing tossed their heads and smiled.
"I will show you!" cried Phaëthon, angrily. "I will do what none of you dare do: I will ride the wild horses of the plain; I will harness them to the king's war-chariot, and drive them in the great circus! I will prove to you that I am worthy to be called the son of Helios!"
"Perhaps you will take his place as driver of the sun-chariot? A day's rest now and then would do the old man great good," sneered Epaphos.
Phaëthon hesitated. "My father," said he, "is one of the immortals, and I am earth-born. And yet—and yet—"
"And yet," shouted his tormentors, "until you have driven the sun-chariot through the skies, nobody will believe that you are the son of Helios!"
And they went on their way laughing.
"You may sneer, and you may laugh," said Phaëthon, "but the time will come when you will honor me, both for what I am and for what I can do."
Steadily, and with a determined purpose, he set about making himself ready for the great undertaking of his life. He exercised himself daily in feats of strength; he practised running and leaping and throwing weights, until his muscles were hardened and made as elastic as Apollo's bow. Then he took lessons in horsemanship from the greatest riding-masters in the world. He spent months on the grassy steppes of the Caspian, where he learned to lasso wild horses, and, leaping astride of them, to ride them barebacked and bridleless until they were subdued to his will. He entered the chariot races at Corinth, and with a team of four outdrove the most famous charioteers of Greece; and at the great Olympian games he won the victor's crown. No other young man was talked about as much as he.
"A bright young fellow with a brilliant future before him," said some.
"A fine example of what hard work and a little genius can do," said others.
"A lucky chap," said still others—"a mere creature of circumstances. Any of us could do as well, if as many favorable accidents would happen to us to help us along."
"A vain upstart," said those whom he had beaten in the race—"a fop with a girl's face, and more hair than brains, whom the gods have seen fit to favor for a day."
"He claims to be of better blood than the rest of us," said the followers of Epaphos; "yet everybody knows that he was born in a miserable village a long way from Athens, and that his mother is the daughter of a fisherman."
But the young girls whispered among themselves: "How handsome he is, and how deftly he managed the reins! What if he be indeed the son of Helios! Wouldn't it be grand to see him sitting in his father's chariot, and guiding the sun-steeds along their lofty road?" And they said to him, "Phaëthon, if you will drive your father's team for only one little day, we will believe in you."
At length Phaëthon made a long journey to the golden palace of the Dawn in the far distant East. Helios, with his steeds, had just returned from the labors of the day, and he was overjoyed to see his son. He threw his arms about him, and kissed him many times, and called him by many endearing names.
"And now tell me," he said, "what brings you here at this quiet hour of the night, when all men are asleep. Have you come to seek some favor? If so, do not be afraid to tell me; for you know that I will do anything for you—that I will give you anything that you ask."
"There is something," said Phaëthon, "that I long for more than anything else in the world; and I have come to ask you to give it to me."
"What is it, my child?" asked Helios, eagerly. "Only speak, and it shall be yours."
"Father, will you promise to do for me that which I shall ask?"
Then Helios lifted up his hands, and vowed by the river Styx which flows through the underworld, that he would surely grant to his son Phaëthon whatsoever he desired. And this he did, knowing full well the terrible punishment that would be his in case he should not observe that vow. Nine years he would have to lie on the ground as though he were dead, and nine other years he would be shut out from the company of his friends; his sun-car would be broken in pieces, and his fleet horses lost forever, and the whole world doomed to everlasting night.
The young man was glad when his father had made this vow. He spoke quickly, and said: "This, then, O father, is the boon which I have come to ask, and which you have promised to give: it is that I may take your place to-morrow, and drive your chariot through the flaming pathway of the sky."
Helios sank back terrified at the request, and for a time could not speak.
"My child," he said at last, "you surely do not mean it. No man living can ever drive my steeds; and although you have kinship with the immortals, you are only human. Choose, I pray you, some other favor."
Phaëthon wept, and answered: "Father, there are some people who do not believe that I am better than mere common men, and they scorn me to my face. But if they could once see me driving the sun-car through mid-air, they and all the world would honor me. And I can drive your steeds; for have I not mastered the wildest horses of the desert, and have I not driven the winning chariot in the Corinthian races? By long years of patient training I have fitted myself for this task."
Through all the rest of the night Helios pleaded with the young man, but in vain: Phaëthon would not listen to any refusal. "This favor I will have or none," said he. "I will drive the sun-car through the heavens to-morrow, and all men shall know that I am the son and heir of Helios."
At length Aurora, in her yellow morning robes, knocked at the door, and Helios knew that no more time could be spent in vain entreaties.
"Ah, my son!" he said, "you know not what you have asked. Yet since I have made the vow I will not refuse you. May the immortals have you in their keeping, and ward all danger from you!"
Then the four horses were led out and harnessed to the car, and Helios sadly gave the reins into Phaëthon's hands.
"Thy folly will doubtless bring its own punishment, my son," he said; and, hiding his face in his long cloak, he wept.
But the young man leaped quickly into the car, and cried out, as his father had been wont to cry: "On, Eös! On, Æthon, Brontë, Sterope! On, ye children of the morning! Awaken the world with your brightness, and carry beauty and gladness into every corner of the earth. Sterope, Brontë, Æthon, Eös, on with you!"
Up sprang the steeds, swift as the thunderclouds that rise from the sea. Quickly they vaulted upward to the blue dome of heaven. Madly they careered above the mountain tops, turning hither and thither in their course, and spurning the control of their driver; for well they knew that it was not their old master who stood in the chariot behind them. Then the proud heart of Phaëthon began to fail within him. He quaked with fear, and the yellow reins dropped from his hands.
"O my father!" he cried, "how I wish that I had heeded your warning!"
And the fiery steeds leaped upward and soared in the heavens until they reached a point higher than any eagle had ever attained; then, as suddenly, they plunged downward, dragging the burning car behind them; then, for a long time, they skimmed close to the tree-tops, and dangerously near to the dwellings of men. From the valley of the Nile westward, across the continent of Africa, they passed in their unmanageable flight, and the region that had once been so green and fertile was scorched into a barren desert. The rivers were dried up, and the fishes in them died. The growing grain, the grass, the herbs, the trees—all were withered by the intense heat. The mountains smoked, the earth quaked, and the sky was lurid with flame. The fair people who dwelt in that ill-fated land hastened to hide themselves in caves and among the rocks, where many of them perished miserably from thirst and the unbearable heat; and those who survived and came forth again into the light of day were so scorched and blackened that their skins were of the hue of night, and no washing could ever make them white again. Then all living creatures, great and small, cried out in their terror, and besought the ever-living powers to save them from destruction. And mother Gæa, queen of earth, heard them; and, pitying them, she prayed to great Zeus, ruler of gods and men, that he would do something to stop the mad course of the driverless steeds ere the whole world should be wrapped in flames. Zeus, from his palace on high, heard her prayer, and hurled his thunderbolts upon the head of the hapless Phaëthon. The youth, stricken and helpless, fell headlong from the car, and the team of Helios, frightened into obedience, soared aloft to their accustomed pathway, and, though driverless, pursued their journey to the shore of the western ocean. Helios was there awaiting their coming, and when he saw that Phaëthon was not in the car deep sorrow filled his heart; he covered his face with his cloak, and it was long ere his smiles were seen again as of yore.
As for Phaëthon, he fell into the great river Po, and messengers hastened to carry the news of his death into the country of his birth.
And the daughters of the West built him a noble tomb of marble near the shore of the great sea; and they caused an inscription to be engraved upon it, which said that although he had failed in what he had undertaken, yet he was worthy of honor, because he had set his mind on high things.