The Choice of Hercules
Y ES; at last Hercules was free, after twelve long years of slavery, during which he had scarce known a day's pleasure or ease. It seemed too good to be true.
His only trouble now was what to do with his liberty. He was his own master; the whole world was before him, and he was strong enough to do whatever he pleased. And while thus thinking what he should do with his life and strength, there came to him in the middle of the night a vision as of two women, real and yet unreal, bringing with them a strange light of their own.
The first to speak was young, and beautiful, crowned with flowers, and with a voice as sweet as her smile.
"What folly is thinking!" said she. "You have toiled enough; you have won the right to do whatever you like best for the rest of your days. No more labor to serve another's will or whim; no more hateful tasks, one ending only for another to begin; no more cold, hunger, thirst, strife with monsters, and self-denial; and all for what? Why, for nothing. My name is Pleasure. Choose me for your soul, and you shall have Power, Glory, Riches, Comfort, Delight—all your whole heart's desire."
The other shape wore no flowers: her lips did not smile, and the light of her clear bright eyes was cold; and her voice belonged to her eyes.
"Yet think," said she, "before you choose, because you must choose to-night once for all. Was it Pleasure who helped you to rid the people of the ravage of the Nemæan lion? No, indeed: she would have bidden you stay at home. Was it Pleasure who stood by you as you struck off the heads of the Hydra, one by one? No, indeed. Did Pleasure join with you in chasing the Erymanthine boar and the stag with the golden horns? Did she clean away the Augean stable? Did she send you forth to free the world of the man-eating birds of Lake Stymphalus, and the dreadful Cretan bull, and the mares of King Diomedes, and the Giant Antæus, and the Ogre Geryon, and Cacus the Robber? Did Pleasure save Alcestis from death, and break through the very gates of hell? No; it was Obedience. And if obedience to a mere earthly master has worked such wonders for the good of all mankind, how much more good will come of willing obedience to Me?"
"And how, then, are you called?" asked Hercules, looking from one to the other—from the warm glowing smile of Pleasure to the grave eyes of the form which had last spoken.
"Among men I am called Duty," said she.
Hercules could not help sighing—for the more he looked at Pleasure the more beautiful she grew; while the face of Duty seemed every moment to become more stern and cold.
"It does seem hard," said he, "to use my freedom in only making a change of service. But after all, what is the good of having more strength than other men, except to help them? It's true, though I never thought of it before. And if Pleasure won't help me to rid the world of the rest of its monsters, and Duty will, why, there's only one thing for a man to do, and that's to choose Duty, and obey her, however hard she may be."
Then he went to sleep with his mind made up, and when he woke in the morning his choice woke with him.
So Hercules, instead of being the servant of Eurystheus, became, of his own free will, the servant of all mankind. He made it his work to seek out wrong, and never to rest until he had set it right: he traveled about the world, carrying everywhere with him the love of law and justice, and the worship of the gods, even into savage lands where such things had never been known. Ogres and monsters disappeared: it seemed as if his strength were bringing back the Golden Age.
One day his wanderings brought him into the heart of the great mountain-range called Caucasus, a vast and dreadful region of snow-covered peaks which no human foot had ever climbed. Never had even he known a harder labor than to make his way among these icy precipices, where every step meant danger. Not a sign of life was to be seen or heard, when suddenly he heard a terrible cry like that of a giant in pain.
He looked round; but saw nothing but the silent mountains. Then the cry came again, as if from far above him; and, lifting his eyes to the highest peak of all, he was sure that something moved there like the flapping of great wings.
What could it be? What could be happening upon the highest mountain peak in the world? He set himself to climb its sides, often so steep and icy that he was over and over again on the point of giving up in despair; and the higher he climbed the louder and more full of agony became the cry. At last, after many days of toil, he reached the topmost peak whence the cry came, and there he forgot hunger, cold, and weariness in wonder at what he saw.
Bound to the rocks by huge chains, so that he could not move a limb, lay what seemed a man, bigger than Hercules himself, with every muscle drawn and writhing in agony. And with good reason, for a gigantic and horrible vulture had his limbs in its talons and its beak in his heart, which it was fiercely tearing.
The vulture was too busy at his cruel feast to see Hercules. But its tortured victim cried—
"Depart, whoever you are: I am Prometheus the Titan, who tried to conquer the strength of the gods by cunning, and am thus punished for my sin forever."
And then he sent forth another dreadful cry as the vulture plunged its beak into his heart again.
Prometheus! Yes; it was nothing less than Prometheus the Titan, who, when his race was beaten in the great battle with the gods of Olympus, had stolen fire from heaven, and made Man, and who was thus punished for having made what gave the gods such trouble. But Hercules, though he knew all this, and the story of Pandora besides, exclaimed—
"Then, gods or no gods, sin or no sin, this shall not be!"
And at the word he grasped the vulture by the throat, and then followed a struggle beside which even his battle with the hell-hound Cerberus had been as nothing. For it was no common vulture of the mountains: it was the demon of Remorse, whose beak had not left the heart of Prometheus one moment for thousands and thousands of years. But it was over at last, and the vulture lay strangled at the feet of Hercules.
To free Prometheus from his chains was the work of a moment, and the Titan rose and stretched his free limbs with a heart at ease.
* * *
What passed between the Titan and the Mortal is beyond my guessing, and I have never heard. I only know that a mere Man had, by his strength and his courage, saved one who was greater and wiser than he from Remorse and Despair. I have thought of this story till it means too much for me to say anything more. Only, if you have forgotten the story of Prometheus and Pandora, I should be glad if you will read it again.