Gateway to the Classics: Good Stories for Great Holidays by Frances Jenkins Olcott
Good Stories for Great Holidays by  Frances Jenkins Olcott

The Choice of Hercules


Long, long ago, when the world was young, there were many deeds waiting to be wrought by daring heroes. It was then that the mighty Hercules, who was yet a lad, felt an exceeding great and strong desire to go out into the wide world to seek his fortune.

One day, while wandering alone and thoughtful, he came to a place where two paths met. And sitting down he gravely considered which he should follow.

One path led over flowery meadows toward the darkening distance; the other, passing over rough stones and rugged, brown furrows, lost itself in the glowing sunset.

And as Hercules gazed into the distance, he saw two stately maidens coming toward him.

The first was tall and graceful, and wrapped round in a snow-white mantle. Her countenance was calm and beautiful. With gracious mien and modest glance she drew near the lad.

The other maiden made haste to outrun the first. She, too, was tall, but seemed taller than she really was. She, too, was beautiful, but her glance was bold. As she ran, a rosy garment like a cloud floated about her form, and she kept looking at her own round arms and shapely hands, and ever and anon she seemed to gaze admiringly at her shadow as it moved along the ground. And this fair one did outstrip the first maiden, and rushing forward held out her white hands to the lad, exclaiming:—

"I see thou art hesitating, O Hercules, by what path to seek thy fortune. Follow me along this flowery way, and I will make it a delightful and easy road. Thou shalt taste to the full of every kind of pleasure. No shadow of annoyance shall ever touch thee, nor strain nor stress of war and state disturb thy peace. Instead thou shalt tread upon carpets soft as velvet, and sit at golden tables, or recline upon silken couches. The fairest of maidens shall attend thee, music and perfume shall lull thy senses, and all that is delightful to eat and drink shall be placed before thee. Never shalt thou labor, but always live in joy and ease. Oh, come! I give my followers liberty and delight!"

And as she spoke the maiden stretched forth her arms, and the tones of her voice were sweet and caressing.

"What, O maiden," asked Hercules, "is thy name?"

"My friends," said she, "call me Happiness, but mine enemies name me Vice."

Even as she spoke, the white-robed maiden, who had drawn near, glided forward, and addressed the lad in gracious tones and with words stately and winning:—

"O beloved youth, who wouldst wander forth in search of Life, I too, would plead with thee! I, Virtue, have watched and tended thee from a child. I know the fond care thy parents have bestowed to train thee for a hero's part. Direct now thy steps along yon rugged path that leads to my dwelling. Honorable and noble mayest thou become through thy illustrious deeds.

"I will not seduce thee by promises of vain delights; instead will I recount to thee the things that really are. Lasting fame and true nobility come not to mortals save through pain and labor. If thou, O Hercules, seekest the gracious gifts of Heaven, thou must remain constant in prayer; if thou wouldst be beloved of thy friends, thou must serve thy friends; if thou desirest to be honored of the people thou must benefit the people; if thou art anxious to reap the fruits of the earth, thou must till the earth with labor; and if thou wishest to be strong in body and accomplish heroic deeds, thou must teach thy body to obey thy mind. Yea, all this and more also must thou do."

"Seest thou not, O Hercules," cried Vice, "over how difficult and tedious a road this Virtue would drive thee? I, instead, will conduct thy steps by a short and easy path to perfect Happiness."

"Wretched being!" answered Virtue, "wouldst thou deceive this lad! What lasting Happiness hast thou to offer! Thou pamperest thy followers with riches, thou deludest them with idleness; thou surfeitest them with luxury; thou enfeeblest them with softness. In youth they grow slothful in body and weak in mind. They live without labor and wax fat. They come to a wretched old age, dissatisfied, and ashamed, and oppressed by the memory of their ill deeds; and, having run their course, they lay themselves down in melancholy death and their name is remembered no more.

"But those fortunate youths who follow me receive other counsel. I am the companion of virtuous men. Always I am welcome in the homes of artisans and in the cottages of tillers of the soil. I am the guardian of industrious households, and the rewarder of generous masters and faithful servants. I am the promoter of the labors of peace. No honorable deed is accomplished without me.

"My friends have sweet repose and the untroubled enjoyment of the fruits of their efforts. They remember their deeds with an easy conscience and contentment, and are beloved of their friends and honored by their country. And when they have run their course, and death overtakes them, their names are celebrated in song and praise, and they live in the hearts of their grateful countrymen.

"Come, then, O Hercules, thou son of noble parents, come, follow thou me, and by thy worthy and illustrious deeds secure for thyself exalted Happiness."

She ceased, and Hercules, withdrawing his gaze from the face of Vice, arose from his place, and followed Virtue along the rugged, brown path of Labor.

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