This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
Among the pupils of Chiron was a prince called Jason, who had been put in the care of the wise old centaur when he was not much more than a baby. He had a very wicked uncle, who had stolen the kingdom from Jason’s father and set himself upon the throne. But little Jason was hidden in the forest caves of those strange creatures, the centaurs, who were half horses, half men. There, Chiron played on a golden harp and sang songs about the heroes of the earth. Under his care, Jason grew up strong and fearless, able to wrestle and run and hunt with the best of the young princes. When he had grown into a vigorous youth, Chiron disclosed to him who he was, and said he must go into his own country and recover the lost kingdom for his father.
So one morning Jason set off through the woods, a panther skin thrown over one shoulder, a hunting spear in his right hand. Singing gaily, he strode down the glades until he came to a river, swollen and rapid with rain. On the bank sat a poor, ragged old woman, looking despairingly at the rushing brown water, all creamy with foam. Jason spoke to her kindly, asking if she wanted to get to the other side.
“Indeed I do,” she answered, ” but how can an old body like myself wade through such a torrent?”
“Certainly you cannot,” answered Jason, “but I am young and strong. I will carry you.”
On to his shoulders, he hoisted the old dame, ragged cloak and all, and into the river he plunged. She held him so tightly around the neck that Jason thought she would throttle him, but he struggled on, losing one of his sandals in the mud and stones. At last, out of breath, he reached the other side. The old woman slid from his shoulders and he saw her feet touch the ground, where, to his amazement, they showed white and beautiful, and bound with gems, among the violets and daffodils.
Then he caught the fragrance of myrrh and roses and felt the soft touch of a gossamer veil. Bewildered, he looked into the beggar’s face. Behold, her skin was delicate and her eyes as blue as the sky! In her hand was a wand with a golden cuckoo perched on top; by her side, a royal peacock spread its spangled tail. It was Hera herself whom he had carried across the stream.
“Jason,” said she, smiling, “you are good as well as handsome. What you have done for an old woman, the queen of Olympus will not forget!” Then, all at once, a car drawn by golden-winged dragons glittered through the white cherry trees. She mounted it, and, in a flash, was gone.
Jason, full of wonder, went on, one foot bare, the other still bound with a sandal. He came to a great city and walked down streets paved with marble. This was the royal city of the kingdom to which he was heir. Looking upon its beauty, he clenched his hand and vowed that his uncle should restore it to its rightful king.
By and by, he saw a magnificent procession coming down a great flight of steps; and in the middle was his wicked uncle himself. The prince pushed forward eagerly to get a better sight, and the king saw the stranger in the crowd. He started and turned pale, staring at the feet of his unknown nephew. In his ears rang the memory of a warning he had received years before:
“Beware of the man who will come to you with only one sandal!”
The king made a sign, and his guards seized Jason and held him fast, while his uncle, staring at him fixedly, asked who he was.
“I am Jason, the son of your brother, and I have come to claim my father’s kingdom,” was the youth’s brave reply.
The king went still paler. He would have liked to order Jason’s head to be cut off, but he dared not. Instead, he pretended to be glad to see him and invited him to the palace to a feast that was about to be held. So Jason joined the procession and presently found himself in the royal home where he had been born.
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Everybody sat down to the banquet, which was very wonderful. Beautiful maidens served wine in golden goblets; pretty pages burnt perfumes on amber stands; and minstrels played on silver harps. Jason was soon quite excited with these new sights and sounds, but nothing excited him so much as the songs of heroes that the harpists sang.
The wicked uncle was watching all the time, furtively and sombrely, wondering how he could get rid of him. At last, with his white jeweled hand, he made a sign to the chief minstrel. All the other harps were hushed; the servers of the feast drew aside; and the chief minstrel, striking his strings, began to fill the hall with his melody.
A wonderful song he sang, how, at a king’s court, in the long ago, lived a little maiden and a fair-haired youth, both of royal blood. Their father, the king, loved them; but the queen, their stepmother, looked at them with cold and jealous eyes. He sang how this cruel queen plotted and planned against the sweet young princess and her brother, and at last had the pair taken to a high hill to be put to death. He sang how, as they stood there, bound and helpless, suddenly a bright, strange creature appeared before them, a sheep in form, but with wings and fleece of radiant gold. It took them upon its back, their bonds fell off, and away it flew with them over land and sea towards a country far away. The prince hung on tightly, but the poor little princess grew frightened as they sped over the dark waters; losing her grasp of the golden fleece, she fell into the waves, where the sea nymphs took care of her ever afterward. He sang how the beautiful creature set the prince on the shore of the far country, and how the prince took its golden fleece and hung it up in a deep glade; while its kindly spirit flew away to the flowery meadows of the Elysian Fields, and lived on golden buttercups and silver daisies, such as all good animals eat when they go to those immortal pastures. And then the minstrel’s voice grew even sweeter and clearer as he sang of the golden fleece that still hung on the oak tree in the dim glade, of the dragon who had been set to guard it, and of the heroes who had died in trying to secure it and bring it back again to Greece.
All the time the king was watching Jason from under his eyelids. When the singer began about the heroes the young man’s eyes commenced to glisten. He tightened his grip on his goblet as if he were holding a sword. Louder and louder sang the minstrel; ever more eager grew the prince’s face. At last, he could contain himself no longer. He sprang to his feet and raised his voice above the clear notes of the song.
“Sing no more of the heroes who have failed!” he cried. “You shall soon sing of one who succeeded, for I — I — Jason, prince of this country, will go in search of the golden fleece!”
Then the wicked uncle’s smile shone out in triumph, for this was just what he had wanted. He sent heralds north and south, east and west, to sound the news that Jason was going in search of the golden fleece, and to ask what heroes would be brave enough to accompany him — thinking that every one of them would certainly be killed by the dragon if ever they reached the enchanted glade. But, while the heralds were speeding through the land with their trumpets, Jason stole off to a quiet grove where Hera could sometimes be found, and, kneeling before an oak tree, begged the queen of Olympus to remember the old woman whom he had carried across the river.
Behold, the oak tree began to talk to him in Hera’s own voice. It told him to take one of its boughs and to make a ship’s figurehead from the wood, through the mouth of which Hera would always answer his questions and give him advice. So Jason broke off a bough, all covered with green leaves, took it away, and set it at the bows of a fine ship that had been built for him from mountain pines by a man called Argus. The ship was named the Argo, after him; and the heroes who came at the call of the heralds to set sail in her were called the Argonauts, a word which means sailors of the Argo.
Such a band of heroes never met together before or since, unless it were before the walls of Troy. Theseus came, bright and brave in kingly armor, followed by Heracles, lion skin, club, and all. Then there rose a great clattering of hoofs, and down pranced two magnificent white horses, carrying two riders bright as stars. These were Castor and Pollux, twins who had been hatched, together with a little sister, out of a swan’s egg. By and by, wonderful music sounded far oft in the woodlands and everybody looked up from examining the Argo and faced towards the sound.
Then strange things began to happen on the beach. The little pebbles, and the big stones, and the bigger rocks, all began to dance to the tune that the unseen harpist was playing. The waves sparkled as the fishes’ heads peeped up — and the fishes were dancing, too! Presently, flowers of all kinds, lilies, violets, and crocuses, came delicately down the glades, making fragrant steps and perfumed motions under the trees. Then, the trees themselves drew their roots from the ground and began to move in company. In this way, surrounded by circling greenery and arched swinging boughs, with blossoms trailing about his feet, and white clouds softly floating around his head, came Orpheus, prince of minstrels, whose music drew every living thing to follow the sound.
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Long, long afterward, Orpheus loved and married a maiden called Eurydice, who was carried away into the underworld to Persephone’s garden. But Orpheus followed her there, and played to Persephone so beautifully that the little queen persuaded the dark king to let Eurydice go, on the one condition that Orpheus never looked back at her as she followed him down the shadowy road back to the light; Orpheus promised and set off home, with Eurydice, pale and silent, just behind. So soft and soundless were her footsteps that Orpheus could hardly believe she was really following, and, when they were very near the gate that led back to earth, he broke his promise and turned around to look.
A shrouded form was just behind, and, crying out joyfully, he tried to catch it in his arms. But instantly it vanished. He had broken his promise, and Eurydice had gone back to Persephone’s garden forevermore.
That, however, was not until long after the day when Orpheus came, playing his harp, down to the sunlit beach, and, springing on board the Argo with all the other heroes, made the loveliest of music for them as the big ship sailed from the shore, while the flowers danced back to the woods, and the fishes to their homes among the rocks and caves.
So the Argonauts set off, and in another story you shall hear how Jason found and carried home the golden fleece from the enchanted glade.