THERE was once a king of Athens whose name was Ægeus. He had no son; but he had fifty nephews, and they were waiting for him to die, so that one of them might be king in his stead. They were wild, worthless fellows, and the people of Athens looked forward with dread to the day when the city should be in their power. Yet so long as Ægeus lived they could not do much harm, but were content to spend their time in eating and drinking at the king's table and in quarreling among themselves.
It so happened one summer that Ægeus left his kingdom in the care of the elders of the city and went on a voyage across the Saronic Sea to the old and famous city of Trœzen, which lay nestled at the foot of the mountains on the opposite shore. Trœzen was not fifty miles by water from Athens, and the purple-peaked island of Ægina lay between them; but to the people of that early time the distance seemed very great, and it was not often that ships passed from one place to the other. And as for going by land round the great bend of the sea, that was a thing so fraught with danger that no man had ever dared try it.
King Pittheus of Trœzen was right glad to see Ægeus, for they had been boys together, and he welcomed him to his city and did all that he could to make his visit a pleasant one. So, day after day, there was feasting and merriment and music in the marble halls of old Trœzen, and the two kings spent many a happy hour in talking of the deeds of their youth and of the mighty heroes whom both had known. And when the time came for the ship to sail back to Athens, Ægeus was not ready to go. He said he would stay yet a little longer in Trœzen, for that the elders of the city would manage things well at home; and so the ship returned without him.
But Ægeus tarried, not so much for the rest and enjoyment which he was having in the home of his old friend, as for the sake of Æthra, his old friend's daughter. For Æthra was as fair as a summer morning, and she was the joy and pride of Trœzen; and Ægeus was never so happy as when in her presence. So it happened that some time after the ship had sailed, there was a wedding in the halls of King Pittheus; but it was kept a secret, for Ægeus feared that his nephews, if they heard of it, would be very angry and would send men to Trœzen to do him harm.
Month after month passed by, and still Ægeus lingered with his bride and trusted his elders to see to the affairs of Athens. Then one morning, when the gardens of Trœzen were full of roses and the heather was green on the hills, a babe was born to Æthra—a boy with a fair face and strong arms and eyes as sharp and as bright as the mountain eagle's. And now Ægeus was more loth to return home than he had been before, and he went up on the mountain which overlooks Trœzen, and prayed to Athena, the queen of the air, to give him wisdom and show him what to do. Even while he prayed there came a ship into the harbor, bringing a letter to Ægeus and alarming news from Athens.
"Come home without delay"—these were words of the letter which the elders had sent—"come home quickly, or Athens will be lost. A great king from beyond the sea, Minos of Crete, is on the way with ships and a host of fighting men; and he declares that he will carry sword and fire within our walls, and will slay our young men and make our children his slaves. Come and save us!"
"It is the call of duty," said Ægeus; and with a heavy heart he made ready to go at once across the sea to the help of his people. But he could not take Æthra and her babe, for fear of his lawless nephews, who would have slain them both.
"Best of wives," he said, when the hour for parting had come, "listen to me, for I shall never see your father's halls, nor dear old Trœzen, nor perhaps your own fair face, again. Do you remember the old plane tree which stands on the mountain side, and the great flat stone which lies a little way beyond it, and which no man but myself has ever been able to lift? Under that stone, I have hidden my sword and the sandals which I brought from Athens. There they shall lie until our child is strong enough to lift the stone and take them for his own. Care for him, Æthra, until that time; and then, and not till then, you may tell him of his father, and bid him seek me in Athens."
Then Ægeus kissed his wife and the babe, and went on board the ship; the sailors shouted; the oars were dipped into the waves; the white sail was spread to the breeze; and Æthra from her palace window saw the vessel speed away over the blue waters towards Ægina and the distant Attic shore.
Year after year went by, and yet no word reached Æthra from her husband on the other side of the sea. Often and often she would climb the mountain above Trœzen, and sit there all day, looking out over the blue waters and the purple hills of Ægina to the dim, distant shore beyond. Now and then she could see a white-winged ship sailing in the offing; but men said that it was a Cretan vessel, and very likely was filled with fierce Cretan warriors, bound upon some cruel errand of war. Then it was rumored that King Minos had seized upon all the ships of Athens, and had burned a part of the city, and had forced the people to pay him a most grievous tribute. But further than this there was no news.
In the meanwhile Æthra's babe had grown to be a tall, ruddy-cheeked lad, strong as a mountain lion; and she had named him Theseus. On the day that he was fifteen years old he went with her up to the top of the mountain, and with her looked out over the sea.
"Ah, if only your father would come!" she sighed.
"My father?" said Theseus. "Who is my father, and why are you always watching and waiting and wishing that he would come? Tell me about him."
And she answered: "My child, do you see the great flat stone which lies there, half buried in the ground, and covered with moss and trailing ivy? Do you think you can lift it?"
"I will try, mother," said Theseus. And he dug his fingers into the ground beside it, and grasped its uneven edges, and tugged and lifted and strained until his breath came hard and his arms ached and his body was covered with sweat; but the stone was moved not at all. At last he said, "The task is too hard for me until I have grown stronger. But why do you wish me to lift it?"
"When you are strong enough to lift it," answered Æthra, "I will tell you about your father."
After that the boy went out every day and practiced at running and leaping and throwing and lifting; and every day he rolled some stone out of its place. At first he could move only a little weight, and those who saw him laughed as he pulled and puffed and grew red in the face, but never gave up until he had lifted it. And little by little he grew stronger, and his muscles became like iron bands, and his limbs were like mighty levers for strength. Then on his next birthday he went up on the mountain with his mother, and again tried to lift the great stone. But it remained fast in its place and was not moved.
"I am not yet strong enough, mother," he said.
"Have patience, my son," said Æthra.
So he went on again with his running and leaping and throwing and lifting; and he practiced wrestling, also, and tamed the wild horses of the plain, and hunted the lions among the mountains; and his strength and swiftness and skill were the wonder of all men, and old Trœzen was filled with tales of the deeds of the boy Theseus. Yet when he tried again on his seventeenth birthday, he could not move the great flat stone that lay near the plane tree on the mountain side.
"Have patience, my son," again said Æthra; but this time the tears were standing in her eyes.
So he went back again to his exercising; and he learned to wield the sword and the battle ax and to throw tremendous weights and to carry tremendous burdens. And men said that since the days of Hercules there was never so great strength in one body. Then, when he was a year older, he climbed the mountain yet another time with his mother, and he stooped and took hold of the stone, and it yielded to his touch; and, lo, when he had lifted it quite out of the ground, he found underneath it a sword of bronze and sandals of gold, and these he gave to his mother.
"Tell me now about my father," he said.
Æthra knew that the time had come for which she had waited so long, and she buckled the sword to his belt and fastened the sandals upon his feet. Then she told him who his father was, and why he had left them in Trœzen, and how he had said that when the lad was strong enough to lift the great stone, he must take the sword and sandals and go and seek him in Athens.
"She buckled the sword to his belt."
Theseus was glad when he heard this, and his proud eyes flashed with eagerness as he said: "I am ready, mother; and I will set out for Athens this very day."
Then they walked down the mountain together and told King Pittheus what had happened, and showed him the sword and the sandals. But the old man shook his head sadly and tried to dissuade Theseus from going.
"How can you go to Athens in these lawless times?" he said. "The sea is full of pirates. In fact, no ship from Trœzen has sailed across the Saronic Sea since your kingly father went home to the help of his people, eighteen years ago."
Then, finding that this only made Theseus the more determined, he said: "But if you must go, I will have a new ship built for you, stanch and stout and fast sailing; and fifty of the bravest young men in Trœzen shall go with you; and mayhap with fair winds and fearless hearts you shall escape the pirates and reach Athens in safety."
"Which is the most perilous way?" asked Theseus—"to go by ship or to make the journey on foot round the great bend of land?"
"The seaway is full enough of perils," said his grandfather, "but the landway is beset with dangers tenfold greater. Even if there were good roads and no hindrances, the journey round the shore is a long one and would require many days. But there are rugged mountains to climb, and wide marshes to cross, and dark forests to go through. There is hardly a footpath in all that wild region, nor any place to find rest or shelter; and the woods are full of wild beasts, and dreadful dragons lurk in the marshes, and many cruel robber giants dwell in the mountains."
"Well," said Theseus, "if there are more perils by land than by sea, then I shall go by land, and I go at once."
"But you will at least take fifty young men, your companions, with you?" said King Pittheus.
"Not one shall go with me," said Theseus; and he stood up and played with his sword hilt, and laughed at the thought of fear.
Then when there was nothing more to say, he kissed his mother and bade his grandfather good-by, and went out of Trœzen towards the trackless coastland which lay to the west and north. And with blessings and tears the king and Æthra followed him to the city gates, and watched him until his tall form was lost to sight among the trees which bordered the shore of the sea.
With a brave heart Theseus walked on, keeping the sea always upon his right. Soon the old city of Trœzen was left far behind, and he came to the great marshes, where the ground sank under him at every step, and green pools of stagnant water lay on both sides of the narrow pathway. But no fiery dragon came out of the reeds to meet him; and so he walked on and on till he came to the rugged mountain land which bordered the western shore of the sea. Then he climbed one slope after another, until at last he stood on the summit of a gray peak from which he could see the whole country spread out around him. Then downward and onward he went again, but his way led him through dark mountain glens, and along the edges of mighty precipices, and underneath many a frowning cliff, until he came to a dreary wood where the trees grew tall and close together and the light of the sun was seldom seen.
In that forest there dwelt a robber giant, called Club-carrier, who was the terror of all the country. For oftentimes he would go down into the valleys where the shepherds fed their flocks, and would carry off not only sheep and lambs, but sometimes children and the men themselves. It was his custom to hide in the thickets of underbrush, close to a pathway, and, when a traveler passed that way, leap out upon him and beat him to death. When he saw Theseus coming through the woods, he thought that he would have a rich prize, for he knew from the youth's dress and manner that he must be a prince. He lay on the ground, where leaves of ivy and tall grass screened him from view, and held his great iron club ready to strike.
But Theseus had sharp eyes and quick ears, and neither beast nor robber giant could have taken him by surprise. When Club-carrier leaped out of his hiding place to strike him down, the young man dodged aside so quickly that the heavy club struck the ground behind him; and then, before the robber giant could raise it for a second stroke, Theseus seized the fellow's legs and tripped him up.
Club-carrier roared loudly, and tried to strike again; but Theseus wrenched the club out of his hands, and then dealt him such a blow on the head that he never again harmed travelers passing through the forest. Then the youth went on his way, carrying the huge club on his shoulder, and singing a song of victory, and looking sharply around him for any other foes that might be lurking among the trees.
Just over the ridge of the next mountain he met an old man who warned him not to go any farther. He said that close by a grove of pine trees, which he would soon pass on his way down the slope, there dwelt a robber named Sinis, who was very cruel to strangers.
"He is called Pine-bender," said the old man; "for when he has caught a traveler, he bends two tall, lithe pine trees to the ground and binds his captive to them—a hand and a foot to the top of one, and a hand and a foot to the top of the other. Then he lets the trees fly up, and he roars with laughter when he sees the traveler's body torn in sunder."
"It seems to me," said Theseus, "that it is full time to rid the world of such a monster;" and he thanked the kind man who had warned him, and hastened onward, whistling merrily as he went down towards the grove of pines.
Soon he came in sight of the robber's house, built near the foot of a jutting cliff. Behind it was a rocky gorge and a roaring mountain stream; and in front of it was a garden wherein grew all kinds of rare plants and beautiful flowers. But the tops of the pine trees below it were laden with the bones of unlucky travelers, which hung bleaching white in the sun and wind.
On a stone by the roadside sat Sinis himself; and when he saw Theseus coming, he ran to meet him, twirling a long rope in his hands and crying out:
"Welcome, welcome, dear prince! Welcome to our inn—the true Traveler's Rest!"
"What kind of entertainment have you?" asked Theseus. "Have you a pine tree bent down to the ground and ready for me?"
"Ay; two of them!" said the robber. "I knew that you were coming, and I bent two of them for you."
As he spoke he threw his rope towards Theseus and tried to entangle him in its coils. But the young man leaped aside, and when the robber rushed upon him, he dodged beneath his hands and seized his legs, as he had seized Club-carrier's, and threw him heavily to the ground. Then the two wrestled together among the trees, but not long, for Sinis was no match for his lithe young foe; and Theseus knelt upon the robber's back as he lay prone among the leaves, and tied him with his own cord to the two pine trees which were already bent down. "As you would have done unto me, so will I do unto you," he said.
Then Pine-bender wept and prayed and made many a fair promise; but Theseus would not hear him. He turned away, the trees sprang up, and the robber's body was left dangling from their branches.
Now this old Pine-bender had a daughter named Perigune, who was no more like him than a fair and tender violet is like the gnarled old oak at whose feet it nestles; and it was she who cared for the flowers and the rare plants which grew in the garden by the robber's house. When she saw how Theseus had dealt with her father, she was afraid and ran to hide herself from him.
"Oh, save me, dear plants!" she cried, for she often talked to the flowers as though they could understand her. "Dear plants, save me; and I will never pluck your leaves nor harm you in any way so long as I live."
There was one of the plants which up to that time had had no leaves, but came up out of the ground looking like a mere club or stick. This plant took pity on the maiden. It began at once to send out long feathery branches with delicate green leaves, which grew so fast that Perigune was soon hidden from sight beneath them. Theseus knew that she must be somewhere in the garden, but he could not find her, so well did the feathery branches conceal her. So he called to her:
"Perigune," he said, "you need not fear me; for I know that you are gentle and good, and it is only against things dark and cruel that I lift up my hand."
The maiden peeped from her hiding-place, and when she saw the fair face of the youth and heard his kind voice, she came out, trembling, and talked with him. And Theseus rested that evening in her house, and she picked some of her choicest flowers for him and gave him food. But when in the morning the dawn began to appear in the east, and the stars grew dim above the mountain peaks, he bade her farewell and journeyed onward over the hills. And Perigune tended her plants and watched her flowers in the lone garden in the midst of the piny grove; but she never plucked the stalks of asparagus nor used them for food, and when she afterwards became the wife of a hero and had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she taught them all to spare the plant which had taken pity upon her in her need.
The road which Theseus followed now led him closer to the shore, and by and by he came to a place where the mountains seemed to rise sheer out of the sea, and there was only a narrow path high up along the side of the cliff. Far down beneath his feet he could hear the waves dashing evermore against the rocky wall, while above him the mountain eagles circled and screamed, and gray crags and barren peaks glistened in the sunlight.
But Theseus went on fearlessly and came at last to a place where a spring of clear water bubbled out from a cleft in the rock; and there the path was narrower still, and the low doorway of a cavern opened out upon it. Close by the spring sat a red-faced giant, with a huge club across his knees, guarding the road so that no one could pass; and in the sea at the foot of the cliff basked a huge turtle, its leaden eyes looking always upward for its food. Theseus knew—for Perigune had told him—that this was the dwelling-place of a robber named Sciron, who was the terror of all the coast, and whose custom it was to make strangers wash his feet, so that while they were doing so, he might kick them over the cliff to be eaten by his pet turtle below.
When Theseus came up, the robber raised his club, and said fiercely: "No man can pass here until he has washed my feet! Come, set to work!"
Then Theseus smiled, and said: "Is your
But Theseus was ready for him. With the iron club which he had taken from Club-carrier in the forest he met the blow midway, and the robber's weapon was knocked out of his hands and sent spinning away over the edge of the cliff. Then Sciron, black with rage, tried to grapple with him; but Theseus was too quick for that. He dropped his club and seized Sciron by the throat; he pushed him back against the ledge on which he had been sitting; he threw him sprawling upon the sharp rocks, and held him there, hanging half way over the cliff.
"Enough! enough!" cried the robber. "Let me up, and you may pass on your way."
"It is not enough," said Theseus; and he drew his sword and sat down by the side of the spring. "You must wash my feet now. Come, set to work!"
Then Sciron, white with fear, washed his feet.
"And now," said Theseus, when the task was ended, "as you have done unto others, so will I do unto you."
There was a scream in mid air which the mountain eagles answered from above; there was a great splashing in the water below, and the turtle fled in terror from its lurking place. Then the sea cried out: "I will have naught to do with so vile a wretch!" and a great wave cast the body of Sciron out upon the shore. But it had no sooner touched the ground than the land cried out: "I will have naught to do with so vile a wretch!" and there was a sudden earthquake, and the body of Sciron was thrown back into the sea. Then the sea waxed furious, a raging storm arose, the waters were lashed into foam, and the waves with one mighty effort threw the detested body high into the air; and there it would have hung unto this day had not the air itself disdained to give it lodging and changed it into a huge black rock. And this rock, which men say is the body of Sciron, may still be seen, grim, ugly, and desolate; and one third of it lies in the sea, one third is embedded in the sandy shore, and one third is exposed to the air.
Keeping the sea always in view, Theseus went onward a long day's journey to the north and east; and he left the rugged mountains behind and came down into the valleys and into a pleasant plain where there were sheep and cattle pasturing and where there were many fields of ripening grain. The fame of his deeds had gone before him, and men and women came crowding to the roadside to see the hero who had slain Club-carrier and Pine-bender and grim old Sciron of the cliff.
"Now we shall live in peace," they cried; "for the robbers who devoured our flocks and our children are no more."
Then Theseus passed through the old town of Megara, and followed the shore of the bay towards the sacred city of Eleusis.
"Do not go into Eleusis, but take the road which leads round it through the hills," whispered a poor man who was carrying a sheep to market.
"Why shall I do that?" asked Theseus.
"Listen, and I will tell you," was the answer. "There is a king in Eleusis whose name is Cercyon, and he is a great wrestler. He makes every stranger who comes into the city wrestle with him; and such is the strength of his arms that when he has overcome a man he crushes the life out of his body. Many travelers come to Eleusis, but no one ever goes away."
"But I will both come and go away," said Theseus; and with his club upon his shoulder, he strode onward into the sacred city.
"Where is Cercyon, the wrestler?" he asked of the warden at the gate.
"The king is dining in his marble palace," was the answer. "If you wish to save yourself, turn now and flee before he has heard of your coming."
"Why should I flee?" asked Theseus. "I am not afraid;" and he walked on through the narrow street to old Cercyon's palace.
The king was sitting at his table, eating and drinking; and he grinned hideously as he thought of the many noble young men whose lives he had destroyed. Theseus went up boldly to the door, and cried out:
"Cercyon, come out and wrestle with me!"
"Ah!" said the king, "here comes another young fool whose days are numbered. Fetch him in and let him dine with me; and after that he shall have his fill of wrestling."
So Theseus was given a place at the table of the king, and the two sat there and ate and stared at each other, but spoke not a word. And Cercyon, as he looked at the young man's sharp eyes and his fair face and silken hair, had half a mind to bid him go in peace and seek not to test his strength and skill. But when they had finished, Theseus arose and laid aside his sword and his sandals and his iron club, and stripped himself of his robes, and said:
"Come now, Cercyon, if you are not afraid; come, and wrestle with me."
Then the two went out into the courtyard where many a young man had met his fate, and there they wrestled until the sun went down, and neither could gain aught of advantage over the other. But it was plain that the trained skill of Theseus would, in the end, win against the brute strength of Cercyon. Then the men of Eleusis who stood watching the contest, saw the youth lift the giant king bodily into the air and hurl him headlong over his shoulder to the hard pavement beyond.
"As you have done to others, so will I do unto you!" cried Theseus.
But grim old Cercyon neither moved nor spoke; and when the youth turned his body over and looked into his cruel face, he saw that the life had quite gone out of him.
Then the people of Eleusis came to Theseus and wanted to make him their king. "You have slain the tyrant who was the bane of Eleusis," they said, "and we have heard how you have also rid the world of the giant robbers who were the terror of the land. Come now and be our king; for we know that you will rule over us wisely and well."
"Some day," said Theseus, "I will be your king, but not now; for there are other deeds for me to do." And with that he donned his sword and his sandals and his princely cloak, and threw his great iron club upon his shoulder, and went out of Eleusis; and all the people ran after him for quite a little way, shouting, "May good fortune be with you, O king, and may Athena bless and guide you!"
Athens was now not more than twenty miles away, but the road thither led through the Parnes Mountains, and was only a narrow path winding among the rocks and up and down many a lonely wooded glen. Theseus had seen worse and far more dangerous roads than this, and so he strode bravely onward, happy in the thought that he was so near the end of his long journey. But it was very slow traveling among the mountains, and he was not always sure that he was following the right path. The sun was almost down when he came to a broad green valley where the trees had been cleared away. A little river flowed through the middle of this valley, and on either side were grassy meadows where cattle were grazing; and on a hillside close by, half hidden among the trees, there was a great stone house with vines running over its walls and roof.
While Theseus was wondering who it could be that lived in this pretty but lonely place, a man came out of the house and hurried down to the road to meet him. He was a well-dressed man, and his face was wreathed with smiles; and he bowed low to Theseus and invited him kindly to come up to the house and be his guest that night.
"This is a lonely place," he said, "and it is not often that travelers pass this way. But there is nothing that gives me so much joy as to find strangers and feast them at my table and hear them tell of the things they have seen and heard. Come up, and sup with me, and lodge under my roof; and you shall sleep on a wonderful bed which I have—a bed which fits every guest and cures him of every ill."
Theseus was pleased with the man's ways, and as he was both hungry and tired, he went up with him and sat down under the vines by the door; and the man said:
"Now I will go in and make the bed ready for you, and you can lie down upon it and rest; and later, when you feel refreshed, you shall sit at my table and sup with me, and I will listen to the pleasant tales which I know you will tell."
When he had gone into the house, Theseus looked around him to see what sort of a place it was. He was filled with surprise at the richness of it—at the gold and silver and beautiful things with which every room seemed to be adorned—for it was indeed a place fit for a prince. While he was looking and wondering, the vines before him were parted and the fair face of a young girl peeped out.
"Noble stranger," she whispered, "do not lie down on my master's bed, for those who do so never rise again. Fly down the glen and hide yourself in the deep woods ere he returns, or else there will be no escape for you."
"Who is your master, fair maiden, that I should be afraid of him?" asked Theseus.
"Men call him Procrustes, or the Stretcher," said the girl—and she talked low and fast. "He is a robber. He brings hither all the strangers that he finds traveling through the mountains. He puts them on his iron bed. He robs them of all they have. No one who comes into his house ever goes out again."
"Why do they call him the Stretcher? And what is that iron bed of his?" asked Theseus, in no wise alarmed.
"Did he not tell you that it fits all guests?" said the girl; "and most truly it does fit them. For if a traveler is too long, Procrustes hews off his legs until he is of the right length; but if he is too short, as is the case with most guests, then he stretches his limbs and body with ropes until he is long enough. It is for this reason that men call him the Stretcher."
"Methinks that I have heard of this Stretcher before," said Theseus; and then he remembered that some one at Eleusis had warned him to beware of the wily robber, Procrustes, who lurked in the glens of the Parnes peaks and lured travelers into his den.
"Hark! hark!" whispered the girl. "I hear him coming!" And the vine leaves closed over her hiding-place.
The very next moment Procrustes stood in the door, bowing and smiling as though he had never done any harm to his fellow men.
"My dear young friend," he said, "the bed is ready, and I will show you the way. After you have taken a pleasant little nap, we will sit down at table, and you may tell me of the wonderful things which you have seen in the course of your travels."
Theseus arose and followed his host; and when they had come into an inner chamber, there, surely enough, was the bedstead, of iron, very curiously wrought, and upon it a soft couch which seemed to invite him to lie down and rest. But Theseus, peering about, saw the ax and the ropes with cunning pulleys lying hidden behind the curtains; and he saw, too, that the floor was covered with stains of blood.
"Now, my dear young friend," said Procrustes, "I pray you to lie down and take your ease; for I know that you have traveled far and are faint from want of rest and sleep. Lie down, and while sweet slumber overtakes you, I will have a care that no unseemly noise, nor buzzing fly, nor vexing gnat disturbs your dreams."
"Is this your wonderful bed?" asked Theseus.
"It is," answered Procrustes, "and you need but to lie down upon it, and it will fit you perfectly."
"But you must lie upon it first," said Theseus, "and let me see how it will fit itself to your stature."
"Ah, no," said Procrustes, "for then the spell would be broken," and as he spoke his cheeks grew ashy pale.
"But I tell you, you must lie upon it," said Theseus; and he seized the trembling man around the waist and threw him by force upon the bed. And no sooner was he prone upon the couch than curious iron arms reached out and clasped his body in their embrace and held him down so that he could not move hand or foot. The wretched man shrieked and cried for mercy; but Theseus stood over him and looked him straight in the eye.
"Is this the kind of bed on which you have your guests lie down?" he asked.
But Procrustes answered not a word. Then Theseus brought out the ax and the ropes and the pulleys, and asked him what they were for, and why they were hidden in the chamber. He was still silent, and could do nothing now but tremble and weep.
"Is it true," said Theseus, "that you have lured hundreds of travelers into your den only to rob them? Is it true that it is your wont to fasten them in this bed, and then chop off their legs or stretch them out until they fit the iron frame? Tell me, is this true?"
"It is true! it is true!" sobbed Procrustes; "and now kindly touch the spring above my head and let me go, and you shall have everything that I possess."
But Theseus turned away. "You are caught," he said, "in the trap which you set for others and for me. There is no mercy for the man who shows no mercy;" and he went out of the room, and left the wretch to perish by his own cruel device.
Theseus looked through the house and found there great wealth of gold and silver and costly things which Procrustes had taken from the strangers who had fallen into his hands. He went into the dining hall, and there indeed was the table spread with a rich feast of meats and drinks and delicacies such as no king would scorn; but there was a seat and a plate for only the host, and none at all for guests.
Then the girl whose fair face Theseus had seen among the vines, came running into the house; and she seized the young hero's hands and blessed and thanked him because he had rid the world of the cruel Procrustes.
"Only a month ago," she said, "my father, a rich merchant of Athens, was traveling towards Eleusis, and I was with him, happy and care-free as any bird in the green woods. This robber lured us into his den, for we had much gold with us. My father, he stretched upon his iron bed; but me, he made his slave."
Then Theseus called together all the inmates of the house, poor wretches whom Procrustes had forced to serve him; and he parted the robber's spoils among them and told them that they were free to go wheresoever they wished. And on the next day he went on, through the narrow crooked ways among the mountains and hills, and came at last to the plain of Athens, and saw the noble city and, in its midst, the rocky height where the great Temple of Athena stood; and, a little way from the temple, he saw the white walls of the palace of the king.
When Theseus entered the city and went walking up the street everybody wondered who the tall, fair youth could be. But the fame of his deeds had gone before him, and soon it was whispered that this was the hero who had slain the robbers in the mountains and had wrestled with Cercyon at Eleusis and had caught Procrustes in his own cunning trap.
"Tell us no such thing!" said some butchers who were driving their loaded carts to market. "The lad is better suited to sing sweet songs to the ladies than to fight robbers and wrestle with giants."
"See his silken black hair!" said one.
"And his girlish face!" said another.
"And his long coat dangling about his legs!" said a third.
"And his golden sandals!" said a fourth.
"Ha! ha!" laughed the first; "I wager that he never lifted a ten-pound weight in his life. Think of such a fellow as he hurling old Sciron from the cliffs! Nonsense!"
Theseus heard all this talk as he strode along, and it angered him not a little; but he had not come to Athens to quarrel with butchers. Without speaking a word he walked straight up to the foremost cart, and, before its driver had time to think, took hold of the slaughtered ox that was being hauled to market, and hurled it high over the tops of the houses into the garden beyond. Then he did likewise with the oxen in the second, the third, and the fourth wagons, and, turning about, went on his way, and left the wonder-stricken butchers staring after him, speechless, in the street.
He climbed the stairway which led to the top of the steep, rocky hill, and his heart beat fast in his bosom as he stood on the threshold of his father's palace.
"Where is the king?" he asked of the guard.
"You cannot see the king," was the answer; "but I will take you to his nephews."
The man led the way into the feast hall, and there Theseus saw his fifty cousins sitting about the table, and eating and drinking and making merry; and there was a great noise of revelry in the hall, the minstrels singing and playing, and the slave girls dancing, and the half-drunken princes shouting and cursing. As Theseus stood in the doorway, knitting his eyebrows and clinching his teeth for the anger which he felt, one of the feasters saw him, and cried out:
"See the tall fellow in the doorway! What does he want here?"
"Yes, girl-faced stranger," said another, "what do you want here?"
"I am here," said Theseus, "to ask that hospitality which men of our race never refuse to give."
"Nor do we refuse," cried they. "Come in, and eat and drink and be our guest."
"I will come in," said Theseus, "but I will be the guest of the king. Where is he?"
"Never mind the king," said one of his cousins. "He is taking his ease, and we reign in his stead."
But Theseus strode boldly through the feast hall and went about the palace asking for the king. At last he found Ægeus, lonely and sorrowful, sitting in an inner chamber. The heart of Theseus was very sad as he saw the lines of care upon the old man's face, and marked his trembling, halting ways.
"Great king," he said, "I am a stranger in Athens, and I have come to you to ask food and shelter and friendship such as I know you never deny to those of noble rank and of your own race."
"Great king," he said,
"I am a stranger in Athens."
"And who are you, young man?" said the king.
"I am Theseus," was the answer.
"What? the Theseus who has rid the world of the mountain robbers, and of Cercyon the wrestler, and of Procrustes, the pitiless Stretcher?"
"I am he," said Theseus; "and I come from old Trœzen, on the other side of the Saronic Sea."
The king started and turned very pale.
"Trœzen! Trœzen!" he cried. Then checking himself, he said, "Yes! yes! You are welcome, brave stranger, to such shelter and food and friendship as the King of Athens can give."
Now it so happened that there was with the king a fair but wicked witch named Medea, who had so much power over him that he never dared to do anything without asking her leave. So he turned to her, and said: "Am I not right, Medea, in bidding this young hero welcome?"
"You are right, King Ægeus," she said; "and let him be shown at once to your guest chamber, that he may rest himself and afterwards dine with us at your own table."
Medea had learned by her magic arts who Theseus was, and she was not at all pleased to have him in Athens; for she feared that when he should make himself known to the king, her own power would be at an end. So, while Theseus was resting himself in the guest chamber, she told Ægeus that the young stranger was no hero at all, but a man whom his nephews had hired to kill him, for they had grown tired of waiting for him to die. The poor old king was filled with fear, for he believed her words; and he asked her what he should do to save his life.
"Let me manage it," she said. "The young man will soon come down to dine with us. I will drop poison into a glass of wine, and at the end of the meal I will give it to him. Nothing can be easier."
So, when the hour came, Theseus sat down to dine with the king and Medea; and while he ate he told of his deeds and of how he had overcome the robber giants, and Cercyon the wrestler, and Procrustes the pitiless; and as the king listened, his heart yearned strangely towards the young man, and he longed to save him from Medea's poisoned cup. Then Theseus paused in his talk to help himself to a piece of the roasted meat, and, as was the custom of the time, drew his sword to carve it—for you must remember that all these things happened long ago, before people had learned to use knives and forks at the table. As the sword flashed from its scabbard, Ægeus saw the letters that were engraved upon it—the initials of his own name. He knew at once that it was the sword which he had hidden so many years before under the stone on the mountain side above Trœzen.
"My son! my son!" he cried; and he sprang up and dashed the cup of poisoned wine from the table, and flung his arms around Theseus. It was indeed a glad meeting for both father and son, and they had many things to ask and to tell. As for the wicked Medea, she knew that her day of rule was past. She ran out of the palace, and whistled a loud, shrill call; and men say that a chariot drawn by dragons came rushing through the air, and that she leaped into it and was carried away, and no one ever saw her again.
The very next morning, Ægeus sent out his heralds, to make it known through all the city that Theseus was his son, and that he would in time be king in his stead. When the fifty nephews heard this, they were angry and alarmed.
"Shall this upstart cheat us out of our heritage?" they cried; and they made a plot to waylay and kill Theseus in a grove close by the city gate.
Right cunningly did the wicked fellows lay their trap to catch the young hero; and one morning, as he was passing that way alone, several of them fell suddenly upon him, with swords and lances, and tried to slay him outright. They were thirty to one, but he faced them boldly and held them at bay, while he shouted for help. The men of Athens, who had borne so many wrongs from the hands of the nephews, came running out from the streets; and in the fight which followed, every one of the plotters, who had lain in ambush was slain; and the other nephews, when they heard about it, fled from the city in haste and never came back again.