THE QUEST OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE

BY M. M. BIRD

The great hall was decked for a banquet. Revelers sat round the laden board and feasted and sang and quaffed rich wines from silver goblets. The king on his daïs toyed with his jeweled wine-cup and gazed down the length of the hall at the flushed faces of the feasters, and heard their gay laughter peal up to the vaulted roof. Yet the eyes of Pelias, the king, were dark, and a settled scowl was on his brow. Terror of Heaven's vengeance still haunted him. He had commanded this festival in honor of Neptune, and yet he knew that the anger of Jupiter was unappeased while the Golden Fleece still hung in the wood at Colchis.

For Phrixus, son of Ĉolus, had fled on the Sacred Ram with the Fleece of Gold, to Ĉetes, King of Colchis, who had protected him and given him his daughter Chalciope to wife. Though Phrixus was now dead, Ĉetes still held the Fleece in Colchis, and the line of Ĉolus languished under the wrath of Jupiter till such time as it was restored to Greece.

This was the subject of the king's meditations as he looked down on the gay company assembled at his feast. And of a sudden his eyes lighted on a travel-stained figure making his way up the long hall to the steps of his throne, in spite of the soiled and tattered weeds. He recognized his royal kinsman. It was Jason son of Ĉson, his own nephew, who, determined to have speech with his uncle the king, had now dared the crossing of the river Anaurus, although swollen by winter rains, and had hardly won through. Till he entered the palace he did not know of the great feast that was being held, but he stood not on ceremony, and made his way to the foot of the throne, just as he was. One of his sandals had stuck in the mire and been left in the river bed.

Now an oracle had come to the king but a short time before, warning him to beware of a man coming in from the field with one sandal lacking. And King Pelias shrank from the sight of the innocent youth who stood before him; and in the dark depths of his heart devised a cruel plot for his destruction, whereby he might rid himself of the menace and, at the same time, be restored to the favor of Jupiter.

Undaunted by the tyrant's frown, Jason stood before him and asserted his claim to the throne. "I, Jason, son of Ĉson, of the line of Ĉolus, live as a peasant among peasants on the banks of Anaurus," he cried, in his brave young voice. "Restore me to my rightful place as son of the late king."

The king dared not openly dispute the claim, but with a feigned smile he answered: "Fetch hither the Golden Fleece held by Ĉetes in Colchis, that you may thus prove worthy to boast yourself of the proud line of Ĉolus. Deliver your father's house from the wrath of Jupiter, and then come to claim your birthright!"

He devised this task, thinking that even could Jason perchance overcome the Colchians, he must assuredly be slain by enemies or lost in the sea ere ever he won home again. For it was well known that Ĉetes had hung the Golden Fleece in an enchanted wood, and set a sleepless serpent to guard the treasure against any who should pass his men-at-arms.

At first Jason was cast into despair at the greatness of this task, but strong in his own innocence and determined to vindicate his rights, he took up the challenge. "I go," he cried, "at the ruthless behest of a tyrannous king and the doom of a god! Who will go in my company—who?"

And from east and west and south the heroes of a hundred deeds came hasting to join him on his quest, for all had heard of the Golden Fleece and its theft by the Colchian men.

And the fame of its quest was noised abroad so that all who loved a bold venture came to proffer Jason their aid; and with others it was the lust of gold that drew them; and with others, again, love of justice and pity for the youth robbed of his birthright by an unjust king. Thus there came to Iolcus the mighty Hercules, and the twin sons of Jupiter, Castor and Pollux, Orpheus with his magic lute, Idmon the seer, and Tiphys the steersman, and others all famous for their prowess in war, the sons of gods and heroes, too many to name.

Then Jason set himself to prepare for his great enterprise, gathering stores and arms, and eagerly seeking information of those who had traveled afar off of the Colchians and their king Ĉetes, and the famed Fleece of Gold, while the good ship Argo was daily growing under the fashioning hands of Argus and his men, who, instructed by Minerva, built so gallant a ship as had never before sailed the seas. And daily there were added to Jason's company valiant warriors and men of renown, young and old, till at last the day came when the Argo was launched for her great enterprise, and the last sacrifices were paid to the protecting gods, and the last feast was eaten on the Pagasĉan shore. Then the heroes cast lots for their places at the oars—for all but the place of honor at the middle thwart, which was given to Hercules and his companion Ancĉus. Tiphys, by common consent, was set at the helm, while Jason was proclaimed captain and chief, in peace and in war, of all the goodly band.

And thus it came that such a company of heroes as had never before been gathered together on one quest sailed forth from Iolcus in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece.

For many days they pursued their way, braving the storms of those dangerous seas, landing on strange coasts where sometimes they found shelter and kindness, but oftener had to fight for life and honor. But ever the glorious quest inspired them, the Golden Fleece brightened their dreams, and they strove loyally together to win through all temptations and dangers. But not all of them survived to reach their goal. Great Hercules was left on the Mysian hills seeking his lost armor-bearer Hylas; and Idmon the seer, faring across a marshy plain, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar and so wounded that he died. For three whole days the heroes mourned his loss; and while they mourned, Tiphys the steersman fell sick, and his sickness was unto death. For grief then the band had gone no farther on the quest had not Ancĉus rekindled their courage with brave words and offered himself as their steersman. And by general acclamation he was elected to the post, and they set forth on their way with renewed faith.

But at last the gallant Argo won through the Pontus Sea and the dreadful Dark Blue Crags, and the voyagers knew themselves to be near to Colchis and the end of their journeying. Picture to yourselves the storm-tossed Argo flying over the seas, and great eagles swooping and wheeling overhead, by which Jason, the captain, knew that they approached the island of Mars, where those winged messengers of the gods were wont to attack any who dared effect a landing. But by his command the heroes armed themselves, and the oarsmen were protected by the shields of their comrades from the feathered darts rained down upon them by the furious birds. And with loud clashing and clanging of their harness the creatures were scared away. So the heroes reached the shore and rested there in peace after their battling with the storm. And as they lay on the shore they saw in the waves a great spar, and four young men clinging to it, tossed hither and thither, till at length it was cast up on to the beach. These proved to be the four sons of Phrixus, who had been thrust out of Colchis by their stern grandsire Ĉetes, and sent away in a little boat. Their skiff had been too frail to withstand the storm that the good ship Argo had outlived.

When these heard of the quest, they offered Jason their allegiance, and begged him to accept their aid in his perilous venture, which he gladly did. So, in calm weather, they sailed gaily on to Colchis, elated to have thus escaped all the perils and to be within sight of their goal.

The Golden Fleece burned ever brighter before the longing eyes of that hero band; courage and loyalty inspired each heart and nerved each arm; they were ready to give life itself, if need be, to achieve their task and bring again the miraculous Fleece to Greece—and such a spirit is unconquerable.

Now Ĉetes, King of Colchis, dwelt in his city by the sea. He had but two daughters, the elder, Chalciope, was the widow of that Phrixus who had come hither riding on the Golden Ram, while the younger was Medea, a sorceress. She was a priestess of Hecate, and served the dreadful mysteries of the goddess. She was versed in all poisons and philters, and would wander out into wild places beyond the city to gather herbs for the brewing of her mystic potions. She lived with her brothers, the sons of Ĉetes, and Chalciope her sister, in a palace in the city, and beside it stood a temple to Hecate.

It happened on a certain day that Medea, as was her wont, went into the hall of the temple, and as she stood there she saw a crowd approaching up the street. Foremost in the throng she saw her sister's four sons, who had been mourned as lost for ever. She cried aloud, and the waiting-women in the palace heard her cry and dropped their broideries, and with Chalciope her sister came running to learn the cause of her fear. And Chalciope saw her sons and clasped them to her with tears of joy. But Medea stood gazing at the splendid strangers who came with them—Jason and his two friends, Telamon and Augias. And as she gazed, Cupid let fly one of his burning shafts, and it pierced the maiden's bosom and there burned with a dull flame. And her eyes were fastened on Jason's comely face, and the conscious blushes flamed in the whiteness of her cheeks, and she stood as if bound by one of her own spells.

Hearing the commotion, the king and queen inquired the cause; and when they saw the handsome strangers they gave them fair welcome, and invited them to join their banquet. Though Ĉetes looked sourly on the sons of Phrixus, of whom he had thought to have rid himself for ever, he was constrained to receive them also with their rescuers.

When seated at the banquet, Argus, one of Phrixus' sons, explained to the king all the circumstances of Jason's coming, and the quest on which he came. "Not to take the Fleece by force he comes," pleaded Argus, "but is minded to pay a fair price for thy gift. He has heard of the bitter enmity of the Sauromatĉ: these rebels he will subdue for thee, and put them under thy sway."

The king's wrath waxed hot, and chiefly with his daughter's sons, for he deemed that they had stirred up Jason to this quest. "Not for the Fleece come ye!" he cried; "but my scepter and my kingly honor ye come to steal! Now, if ye had not broken bread at my table before ye spoke, your tongues had I surely cut out, and had hewn your hands from your wrists, and had sent you forth with naught but your feet to fare through the land! So should ye refrain hereafter from coming on such like quest."

But Jason made gentle answer to the angry king, assuring him that no such wild dream had brought him to this land, but the ruthless behest of a tyrannous king and the doom of a god.

Then the king inly pondered whether to fall on the heroes and do them to death or put their might to the test. And this he decided to be the better way, for they were mighty men and renowned for valor, and he saw that he should have to overcome them by subtlety. So he set Jason this impossible task: On the plain of Mars were two brazen-hoofed bulls, breathing flames of fire; these Jason must yoke, and by them drive four plowshares across the plain from dawn to dusk. And in the furrows sow the teeth of a dragon, from which out of the earth armed warriors should spring, and these he must smite and conquer!

The hero sat speechless in his despair, for he deemed no man sufficient for so terrible a task. But Argus went out with him, and knowing his own and his brothers' fate to hang on him, implored him to consult his mother's sister, Medea, the sorceress. Jason, for kindness, consented, but with little hope of the issue.

So Argus returned to his mother, to beg her to intercede with Medea.

Medea, torn with love for Jason, spent the night in mourning over his certain fate unless he craved her aid in his gigantic task, and was longing, yet ashamed, to proffer it. It was, therefore, to the relief of her indecision that her sister Chalciope came to her at length, and begged her to interfere to save her four sons from the doom that threatened them. Medea was glad, for she was thus enabled to save her dignity, and in obeying the dictates of her heart seem only to be concerned with the safety of her sister's sons.

Next morning, therefore, she called her maidens and went out in her chariot to the fane of Hecate on the plain beyond the city, a place where she was often wont to go to gather herbs. There Jason met her, and he sacrificed his pride to beg her assistance. She was torn between love for him and a sense of duty to her father; but yet love was the stronger, and she promised him her aid. Long they talked together in that wilderness till the shades of evening fell and her attendants became uneasy at her long tarrying. She gave him a magic drug that would render his body and arms invulnerable against all attack, and gave him also minute directions for his guidance in his dreadful conflict. And Jason saw how beautiful and tender she was, and love for her awoke in his heart, and he wooed her with gentle words, and vowed that if she would go with him to Greece she should there be made his honored wife.

Evening drew on, and Medea went sadly back to her night of anguished vigil in her palace in the city, while Jason prepared himself for his doubtful conflict. At midnight he bathed alone in the sacred river. Then he digged a pit in the plain as Medea had directed him, and offered a lamb by the pit's brink, and kindled a pyre and burned the carcase. Mingled libations he also poured, and then, calling on Hecate, drew back and strode from the place, and looked not once behind him at the awful queen he had invoked, nor the shapes of fear that accompanied her, nor turned at the wild baying of the hounds of hell.

Then he sprinkled his corslet, his helm, and his arms with the drug Medea gave him, and his comrades proved his harness with all their might and main, whose ringing blows fell harmless upon it. Then he sprinkled his own limbs with the magic drug and fared forth invincible.

At dawn, the heroes sailed in the Argo up the river till they came near to the plain of Mars, and there anchored. King Ĉetes came out from the city in procession to the lists, and all the men of Colchis were gathered on the one hand and the heroes on the other to watch the outcome of this terrible strife.

So Jason set to his task. Bearing with him his helm full of the dragon's teeth he crossed the field, and there saw the brazen yoke lying, and the plow of massive stone. Suddenly, from their lair, the bulls rushed out together and bore down upon him. Jason, setting his feet wide, caught their charge on his shield and withstood the shock. Mightily he seized the horn of one of the monsters, haled with all his strength, and striking its hoof with his foot cast it down on its knees. And, to the amazement of all, he did likewise to its fellow. Then he cast away his shield, and holding them down set the brazen yoke on their necks. All marveled at his superhuman strength. The brow of Ĉetes was black, but the heroes rejoiced and cheered their leader right lustily.

Then he took with him the helm full of dragon's teeth, and his spear for a goad, and forced those frantic beasts to draw the massive plow across the plain, and sowed his baneful seed as he went. All day long he drove his resisting team across the stony plain; and as the granite plowshare tore its way through the earth he cast the dragon's teeth among the upturned clods.

And at length the evening fell, and he unloosed the yoke, and with smiting and shouting scared the bulls across the plain to their caves. Then he gladly returned to the Argo, plunged his helm into the river, and was about to slake his terrible thirst, when he turned to see the whole earth bristling with armed warriors, row on row of shields and spears and helms. The words of Medea came to his remembrance then, and ere he fell upon them he took up from the earth a great round boulder such as four strong men of to-day scarce could move, and flung it in their midst.

Loudly the Colchians shouted, but speechless fear seized on their king when he saw the flight of that massive crag and beheld the earthborn slaying each other. And among them stood Jason, beautiful as a god, hewing them down with his sword, till not one was left alive.

Then the night fell and Jason slept, for he knew that his task was accomplished. Ĉetes and his princes went silently back to their city, for the superhuman power of the hero inspired them with nameless fears.

And in the palace Medea was smitten with terror, for she knew that it must come to the ears of the king her father, that by her arts Jason had been helped to victory, and she dreaded his vengeance. She knew not where to turn for aid but to Jason himself; so she veiled herself, and thrusting her secret drugs and poisons into her bosom, she fled in the darkness from her palace. Through the night she hastened, weeping piteously, torn between love and duty to her parents and her passion for the man her spells had helped, till she saw the gleam of the fire where the heroes were feasting on the river bank. And through the noise of their revelry and the ringing of their gay laughter a bitter cry was heard—a woman's cry. And the sons of Phrixus, her nephews, and Jason, her lover, knew her voice, and they hastily thrust out from the bank and rowed to the place where she stood, and Jason leaped to the bank beside her.

Then Medea clung to his knees and besought him to carry her away lest her father's vengeance should fall heavy upon her. Therefore, before them all, he swore to take her to Greece and wed her there.

Then she adjured them to go in haste, wasting no more precious hours in revelry, to fetch the Golden Fleece before Ĉetes came in pursuit of them. "Speed," she cried, "while darkness covers your deeds!"

So they went in all haste, till they came to the enchanted wood where the Fleece was hanging on an oak tree. And Medea landed there with Jason, and together they sped through the wood till they saw the Fleece shining like flame through the dusk, while before it, in coil on coil, loathsome, with open, watchful eyes, the awful serpent reared its head.

Then Medea called the magic of sleep to her aid. She anointed the serpent's head with her drugs, and rained her spells on its unsleeping eyes, and it sank down upon the earth in lazily undulating folds, until at length it slept.

Then Jason cast the great Fleece across his shoulder, and it fell down all his height and trailed upon the ground. And he caught it up about him and hastened from the spot. The Argonauts, watching anxiously, saw it come flaming through the trees. They greeted the achieving of their quest with shouts of joy, and strove among themselves to touch the glorious Fleece. But Jason was seized with fear lest some god or man should arrive to wrest his treasure from him, so he covered the shimmering Fleece with a mantle, and it lay in the stern of the Argo, with the maiden beside it, and Jason stood above them with his harness on his back and his great sword in his hand.

And the rowers bent to their oars, and the strong blades beat the waves, and swifter than a flying bird the good ship sped down the tide.

By this King Ĉetes and the Colchians knew of Medea's love and her deeds of rebellion. They swarmed on the river banks, and Ĉetes on his white charger pursued the flying boat. But he could not reach his disobedient daughter nor stay the flight of the hero band who had escaped the death he plotted, by the aid of love. And in his wrath the king sent ships after them and charged his captains: "Except ye lay hands on the maiden and bring her so that I may pour the fury with which I burn upon her, on your heads shall all these things light, and ye shall learn the full measure of my wrath."

But far across the seas the good ship Argo flew, and though the Colchians pursued, Medea was never taken, but after all adventure reached Iolcus with Jason, her lover and her lord.

For it was ordained of the high gods that the Golden Fleece should be brought back to Greece by the might of Jason and his brotherhood of heroes, that the wrath of Jupiter might be appeased. For the heroes went on the quest armed with the strength of innocence, and love fought on their side that they might prove mightier than a ruthless king or the doom of an offended god.