Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

A Lost Secret

M INOS, the chief judge of the Court of the Dead in Hades, had been during his life the King of Crete—that large island where Jupiter had been hidden from Saturn. Before the reign of Minos the Cretans had been a number of rude and savage tribes, brigands by land and pirates by sea. He, however, made a single nation of them, civilized them, suppressed brigandage and piracy, built cities, formed a regular army and navy, and gave his people a code of wise and just laws which never had to be changed.

When he, for his justice and his knowledge of law, was made chief judge in Hades, he was succeeded in his kingdom of Crete by his son, Minos the Second. He also was a great and powerful king. He conquered many of the neighboring islands, adding them to his dominions, and made war upon the Athenians, whom he defeated utterly. One of his sons having been killed in that war, he took a cruel revenge upon the vanquished enemy. He laid a tribute upon the city of Athens; and the tribute was that the Athenians should send him every year seven boys and seven girls to be devoured by a monster called the Minotaur—a creature half man and half bull.

When this savage monster first appeared, Minos had been sorely puzzled what to do with such a scourge. Nobody could kill it; and unless it was regularly supplied with a full meal of boys and girls, its fury became uncontrollable. It was partly to keep the Minotaur quiet that he had exacted that particular tribute from his enemies. But neither were the Cretan children safe while the Minotaur was at large.

One day, however, there came to the Court of Minos a stranger who gave his name as Dædălus, an Athenian, and announced himself as having fled from his native city to escape a charge of murder. He was accompanied by a young man, his son, whom he called Icărus; and he asked for whatever employment the king might choose to give him.

"What can you do?" asked Minos.

"Three things," said Dædalus. "I can split the hardest rocks; I can make ships go without oars; and out of wood and metal I can make living men."

"Prove your words," said Minos; "and if you do these things I shall take both you and your son into my service, and pay you well."

Dædalus bowed, and obtained leave to set up a forge, where he and Icarus were soon heard working all night and all day. If the listeners could have looked in, they would have been surprised. He was making nothing more wonderful than pieces of iron, sharp at one end and thick at the other. When he had made enough, he summoned the king and his Court to see him split the biggest and hardest rock they could find on the sea-shore.

They fixed upon a granite cliff. Dædalus put the sharp end of one of his pieces of iron into one of the smallest cracks in the face of the cliff, and hammered upon the blunt end till he had driven it home. Then between this and the stone he drove in another piece of iron; and between those two a third; and so on, and so on, while the rock began to gape, and then to split, until the upper portion parted itself from the lower, and thundered down into the sea.

The secret was simple enough. Dædalus had simply invented the wedge, which can do much greater things than that when it is skillfully used. But the Cretans were amazed to see, as they thought, one man knocking over a cliff with a common hammer.

Then Dædalus set up a workshop by the shore, with some long sheds, and a supply of hemp and timber. Here also he worked day and night; and at last called Minos and his Court to see a ship go without oars.

The ship had a tall pole rising from the middle of the deck. Dædalus and Icarus went on board, and were seen pulling at some long ropes; and presently the ship seemed to spread out wings like a bird, and to skim over the water as fast as the wind without the help of an oar.

Dædalus had invented sails. But the Cretans were more amazed than before, never having thought of such a simple thing for themselves.

Dædalus then went back to his forge; and what he did there nobody could guess, for scarce a sound was heard. After many days, however, he went to the king's palace, he and Icarus carrying a long and heavy chest between them. The chest being opened before Minos, Dædalus took out from it a number of images, exquisitely wrought in wood, bronze, ivory, silver, and gold—men and women; fauns, nymphs, animals; creatures of all sorts and kinds.

When Minos had looked at them and admired them, Dædalus touched them one after another; and then, with a whirring noise, the images seemed to live. The nymphs and satyrs joined hands, and danced in a ring round a bronze Pan who piped to them; a number of wooden young men boxed and wrestled: in short—

In short, Dædalus had invented clock-work. But the Cretans were more amazed than ever, and stood staring, half delighted, half frightened, till he put up the figures in their box again.

"You are the man for me!" exclaimed Minos. "I said I would take you into my own service; and I will. You shall make a cage for the Minotaur!"

This was certainly not the reward which Dædalus had looked for. However, he said nothing, but again shut himself up, this time with writing materials, compasses, and rules. After a long time he got a body of workmen together, and built a Labyrinth—a mass of passages and windings so contrived that nobody who was outside could find the way in, and nobody who was once inside could find the way out again. Nobody, that is to say, unless he had the clue, which was of course to be kept secret. The clue which Dædalus invented—and a very good sort it was—was a long silken thread, with one end fastened to the center of the Labyrinth, carried along all the windings to the entrance. Anybody wishing to get in would have to know this, and in which of the many entrances (for there were hundreds of false ones) he must look for the hidden end of the thread. Then all he would have to do would be to wind up the thread into a ball, following it as he wound, until he reached the middle of the maze. And of course there was another clue to lead him out again in the same way. The middle of the Labyrinth was a hall with many columns, and an opening in the roof to let in light and air. This Labyrinth having been finished, Dædalus enticed the Minotaur into the central hall, locked him up there, and gave Minos the key.

So the Cretan children were safe, and the monster had to be content with his fourteen young Athenians every year.

Dædalus kept on doing work after work for Minos, inventing one thing after another, until the queen, who was a wicked woman, persuaded Dædalus to help her in some piece of wickedness which was discovered by the king. Whatever the affair was, it was kept secret to prevent a Court scandal. The king's anger fell upon Dædalus and Icarus, both of whom he imprisoned in their own Labyrinth—not, I suppose, in the same chamber with the Minotaur.

Indeed I am sure not; because if they had been in the same chamber, Dædalus could have got out by means of the clue. But there was no clue to the chamber where he was imprisoned, and he had built the Labyrinth so cleverly that he himself was lost in its mazes.

Poor Icarus was in despair. But Dædalus only sat down on the base of a column and thought things over in his usual silent and quiet way. After thinking for some days, until they were nearly starved, he set Icarus wondering by doing as follows, in order:—

First, with one of his wedges, he chipped off pieces of stone from the columns.

Secondly, he, in the same way, broke the fragments into pieces of nearly the same size, rounding them roughly.

Thirdly, from a strip of his coat he made a sling.

Fourthly, he watched the opening in the roof, and whenever a bird passed overhead he discharged a stone, and generally brought it down.

Fifthly, when he had got a sufficient number of birds, he plucked out and sorted their wing-feathers.

Sixthly, he collected all the wax-candles in the chamber, and melted them in a fire which he obtained by some secret invention of his own.

Seventhly—but what he did seventhly Icarus could not see.

At last, however, his mysterious work, whatever it was, seemed done. There lay before him two pairs of wings, beautifully made of wax and feathers.

"I have long thought," said Dædalus, "how to invent a method of flying. I am glad of this imprisonment, which had obliged me to fix my whole mind upon it without interruption."

"You have found out how to fly—and with wings like those!" exclaimed Icarus in amaze.

"With these very wings. Why not? Science always looks simple. What can look more simple than a wedge, a sail, a clock-spring? Fasten those wings on your shoulders with the wax, just as you see me fasten these on mine. There. Now open them; do you not feel as if you could reach the clouds? Spread them—mount—fly!"

So saying, he soared up through the opening in the roof, Icarus following him, and steered westward, higher and higher through the air. It was morning when they started; by noon they were over the sea out of sight of land.

"Take care!" cried Dædalus. "Don't fly too  high!"

But Icarus, reveling in all the delights of a sea-gull—nay, of an eagle—soared higher and higher towards the noontide sun. In vain Dædalus called upon him to come lower. He only laughed at his father for being timid and cautious, and soared higher and higher still towards the blazing sky.

Suddenly he felt his wings weakening—the wax was melting in the heat of the sun. He tried to spread them, so as to let himself down safely. They hung soft and limp, and down he came headlong into the sea.

"It's quite clear that one must think of something stronger than wax," thought Dædalus, as he saw Icarus sink and drown. "Well—I've lost my son, but I've gained a wrinkle." Taking care to fly as low as he could, he himself reached the island of Sicily, where he set up another forge, found another king to keep him going, and invented so many wonderful things that to this very day nobody knows what they were.

As for his flying machine, nobody else has come so near to one as even wax and feathers.

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