His Eleventh Labor: The Garden of the Hesperides
S O Hercules, without being allowed any time for rest, had to go back the whole way he had come, without any certain knowledge of where the golden-fruited gardens of the Hesperides were to be found, except that it was somewhere in Africa. Somebody must know, however, or else the gardens would never have been heard of, for travelers never told anything but the truth in those days. He therefore diligently asked everybody he met where the gardens were to be found, and, among others, some nymphs whom he met on the banks of the river Po, while he was passing through Italy.
"We cannot tell you," said they; "but we know who can—old Nereus, the sea-god, if you can only get him to tell."
"And why should he not tell?" asked Hercules.
"Because he never will tell anybody anything, unless he is obliged."
"And how is he to be obliged?" asked Hercules again.
"He is bound to answer anybody who is stronger than he."
"Well, I am pretty strong," said Hercules, modestly. "Anyhow, I can but try."
"Yes, you do look strong," said the nymphs;
"And how shall I know him when I see him?" asked Hercules.
"You will see a very, very old man, older than anybody you ever saw, with bright blue hair, and a very long white beard. He has fifty daughters, so he often gets tired, and likes to sleep as much as he can."
Hercules thanked the nymphs, whom he still heard laughing after he left them, and thought to himself that it would not be much trouble to prove himself stronger than a very old man who was always tired. So, having journeyed back again to the Ægean Sea, he walked along the shore till, sure enough, he saw, sound asleep in a sunny cove, a man who looked a thousand years old, with a white beard reaching below his waist, and with hair as blue as the sea.
"Will you kindly tell me the way to the gardens of the Hesperides?" asked Hercules, waking Nereus by a gentle shake—though I expect one of Hercules' shakes was not what most people would consider gentle.
Instead of answering, Nereus tried to roll himself into the sea, at the bottom of which was his home. Hercules caught him by the leg and arm: when, to his amazement, Nereus suddenly turned into a vigorous young man, who wrestled with him stoutly to get away.
Hercules got him down at last. "Now tell me the way to the gardens of the Hesperides!" he panted—for he was out of breath with the struggle. But he found himself holding down, no longer a man, but a huge and slippery seal, which all but succeeded in plunging into the sea.
But he held on until the seal also was exhausted. And then Hercules found out what had made the nymphs laugh so. For when the seal was wearied out it changed into a gigantic crab, the crab into a crocodile, the crocodile into a mermaid, the mermaid into a sea-serpent, the sea-serpent into an albatross, the albatross into an octopus, the octopus into a mass of sea-weed, which was the hardest to hold of all. But the sea-weed turned back into the old man again, who said:—
"There—you have conquered me in all my shapes; I haven't got any more. You may let me go now, and I will answer you. You must go on through Italy and Spain, and thence across into Africa. You will then be in the land of Mauritania. You must still go south, following the sea-shore, till you come to the giant Atlas, who supports the sky upon his head, and so keeps it from falling. He"—the old sea-god's voice was growing fainter and fainter—"he will tell you all about the gardens of the Hesperides. They're close by—the gardens of the Hesp—"
And so, having finished his answer, Nereus turned over and went comfortably to sleep again.
Once more Hercules set out upon the journey which had seemed as if it would never even begin. Once more he traveled through Italy and Spain, and crossed into Africa over the strait which he himself had made. And on and on he went, always southward by the sea, till, full six hundred miles from the Pillars of Hercules, he saw what he knew must be the giant Atlas on whose head rested the sky. There Atlas, King of Mauritania, had stood ever since he had looked upon the head of Medusa. And if you wonder how the sky was held up before that time, you must ask Nereus, if you can catch him—not me.
As you may suppose, the poor giant was terribly weary of having to hold up, night and day, year after year, the whole weight of the sun, moon, and stars. Even his strength is not able to keep stars from falling now and then—sometimes on a clear night you may see them tumbling down by scores, so it is terrible to think of what would happen if he took even a moment's rest. The whole sky would come crashing down, and the universe would be in ruins. He was longing for the rest he dared not take, and so, when Hercules said to him, "I am seeking fruit from the gardens of the Hesperides," a crafty idea came into the giant's mind.
"Ah!" said he, with a nod which shook down a whole shower of stars. "There is no difficulty. All you have to do is walk through the sea towards the setting sun, till you get there. And there's nothing to prevent you from getting the golden fruit but the dragon who guards the tree on which it grows. The sea doesn't come up higher than my waist, even in the deepest part; and, if you can get past the dragon, my three daughters, the Hesperides, will no doubt receive you with the greatest surprise."
For the first time, Hercules felt dismayed. He had no boat, nor the means of building one; he could not swim further than his eyes could see. As for wading through an ocean that would come up to the waist of a giant as high as the skies, that was absurd. And as to the dragon, he remembered that Perseus had only passed it by means of a helmet which made its wearer invisible.
Atlas saw his perplexity.
"Ah, I forgot you were such a little fellow," said the giant. "I'll go and get you some of the fruit myself. It isn't many of my steps from here to the garden, and the dragon knows me—and if he didn't, I could step over him. And he couldn't hurt me, seeing that I've been turned to stone. But wait, though—what on earth's to become of the sky while I'm gone?"
"I'm pretty strong," said Hercules. "If I climb up to the peak of the next mountain to you, I daresay I could hold the sky up while you're away."
Atlas smiled to himself, for this was just what he had intended.
"Come up, then," said he. So Hercules clambered to the highest peak he could find, and Atlas, slowly bending, gradually and carefully let down the sky upon the head and shoulders of the hero. Then, heaving a deep roar of relief, he strode into the sea.
It was surely the strangest plight in which a mortal ever found himself—standing on a mountain-peak, and, by the strength of his own shoulders, keeping the skies from falling. He was answerable for the safety of the whole world: the burden of the entire universe was laid upon the shoulders of one man. They were strong enough to bear it; but it seemed like an eternity before Atlas returned. A hundred times a minute Hercules felt as if he must let all go, whatever happened; indeed he was actually tempted to yield, for he was weary of these endless labors; and it was only for mankind's sake, and not for his own, that he held on through the agony of the crushing weight of the whole universe.
But Atlas came at last, with three golden apples in his hand.
"Here they are!" he roared. "And now, good-bye!"
"What!" exclaimed Hercules. "Are you not coming back to your duty?"
"Am I a fool?" asked the giant. "Not I. Keep the honor of holding up the skies yourself, since you are so strong and willing. Never again for me!"
"At least, then," said Hercules, "let me place my lion's skin between my shoulders and the sky, so that the weight may be less painful to bear."
Atlas could take no objection to that, so he put his own shoulders under the dome of heaven to let Hercules make himself as comfortable as the situation allowed. Hercules seized the chance, and let the whole weight of the sky fall upon the shoulders of Atlas once more. And there it still rests; and thus Atlas failed in trying to shift his own proper burden to another's shoulders.
"Only three apples!" exclaimed Eurystheus, when Hercules returned. "You can't have taken much trouble to get so little. Go to Hades, and bring me Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Pluto! . . . He will never do that!" he thought to himself. "To reach Hades, one must die!"