Fifteen years were past and gone, and the babe was now grown to be a tall lad and a sailor, and went many voyages after merchandise to the islands round. His mother called him Perseus; but all the people in Seriphos said that he was not the son of mortal man, and called him the son of Zeus, the king of the Immortals. For though he was but fifteen, he was taller by a head than any man in the island; and he was the most skilful of all in running and wrestling and boxing, and in throwing the quoit and the javelin, and in rowing with the oar, and in playing on the harp, and in all which befits a man. And he was brave and truthful, gentle and courteous, for good old Dictys had trained him well; and well it was for Perseus that he had done so. For now Danae and her son fell into great danger, and Perseus had need of all his wit to defend his mother and himself.
I said that Dictys’ brother was Polydectes, king of the island. He was not a righteous man, like Dictys; but greedy, and cunning, and cruel. And when he saw fair Danae, he wanted to marry her. But she would not; for she did not love him, and cared for no one but her boy, and her boy’s father, whom she never hoped to see again. At last Polydectes became furious; and while Perseus was away at sea he took poor Danae away from Dictys, saying, “If you will not be my wife, you shall be my slave.” So Danae was made a slave, and had to fetch water from the well, and grind in the mill, and perhaps was beaten, and wore a heavy chain, because she would not marry that cruel king. But Perseus was far away over the seas in the isle of Samos, little thinking how his mother was languishing in grief.
Now one day at Samos, while the ship was lading, Perseus wandered into a pleasant wood to get out of the sun, and sat down on the turf and fell asleep. And as he slept a strange dream came to him; the strangest dream which he had ever had in his life.
There came a lady to him through the wood, taller than he, or any mortal man: but beautiful exceedingly, with great gray eyes, clear and piercing, but strangely soft and mild. On her head was a helmet, and in her hand a spear. And over her shoulder, above her long blue robes, hung a goatskin, which bore up a mighty shield of brass, polished like a mirror. She stood and looked at him with her clear gray eyes; and Perseus saw that her eyelids never moved, nor her eyeballs, but looked straight through and through him, and into his very heart, as if she could see all the secrets of his soul, and knew all that he had ever thought or longed for since the day that he was born. And Perseus dropped his eyes, trembling and blushing, as the wonderful lady spoke.
“Perseus, you must do an errand for me.”
“Who are you, lady? And how do you know my name?”
“I am Pallas Athené and I know the thoughts of all men’s hearts, and discern their manhood or their baseness. And from the souls of clay I turn away; and they are blest, but not by me. They fatten at ease, like sheep in the pasture, and eat what they did not sow, like oxen in the stall. They grow and spread, like the gourd along the ground: but, like the gourd, they give no shade to the traveller; and when they are ripe death gathers them, and they go down unloved into hell, and their name vanishes out of the land.
“But to the souls of fire I give more fire, and to those who are manful I give a might more than man’s. These are the heroes, the sons of the Immortals, who are blest, but not like the souls of clay. For I drive them forth by strange paths, Perseus, that they may fight the Titans and the monsters, the enemies of Gods and men. Through doubt and need, danger and battle, I drive them; and some of them are slain in the flower of youth, no man knows when or where; and some of them win noble names, and a fair and green old age; but what will be their latter end I know not, and none, save Zeus, the father of Gods and men. Tell me now, Perseus, which of these two sorts of men seem to you more blest?”
Then Perseus answered boldly: “Better to die in the flower of youth, on the chance of winning a noble name, than to live at ease like the sheep, and die unloved and unrenowned.”
Then that strange lady laughed, and held up her brazen shield, and cried: “See here, Perseus; dare you face such a monster as this, and slay it, that I may place its head upon this shield?”
And in the mirror of the shield there appeared a face, and as Perseus looked on it his blood ran cold. It was the face of a beautiful woman; but her cheeks were pale as death, and her brows were knit with everlasting pain, and her lips were thin and bitter like a snake’s; and instead of hair, vipers wreathed about her temples, and shot out their forked tongues; while round her head were folded wings like an eagle’s, and upon her bosom claws of brass.
And Perseus looked awhile, and then said: “If there is anything so fierce and foul on earth, it were a noble deed to kill it. Where can I find the monster?”
Then the strange lady smiled again, and said: “Not yet; you are too young, and too unskilled; for this is Medusa the Gorgon, the mother of a monstrous brood. Return to your home, and do the work which waits there for you. You must play the man in that before I can think you worthy to go in search of the Gorgon.”
Then Perseus would have spoken, but the strange lady vanished, and he awoke; and behold, it was a dream. But day and night Perseus saw before him the face of that dreadful woman, with the vipers writhing round her head.
So he returned home; and when he came to Seriphos, the first thing which he heard was that his mother was a slave in the house of Polydectes.
Grinding his teeth with rage, he went out, and away to the king’s palace, and through the men’s rooms, and the women’s rooms, and so through all the house (for no one dared stop him, so terrible and fair was he), till he found his mother sitting on the floor, turning the stone hand-mill, and weeping as she turned it. And he lifted her up, and kissed her, and bade her follow him forth. But before they could pass out of the room, Polydectes came in, raging. And when Perseus saw him, he flew upon him as the mastiff flies on the boar. “Villain and tyrant!” he cried; “is this your respect for the Gods, and thy mercy to strangers and widows? You shall die!” And because he had no sword, he caught up the stone hand-mill, and he lifted it to dash out Polydectes’s brains.
But his mother clung to him, shrieking, “Oh, my son, we are strangers and helpless in the land; and if you kill the king, all the people will fall on us, and we shall both die.”
Good Dictys, too, who had come in, entreated him. “Remember that he is my brother. Remember how I have brought you up, and trained you as my own son, and spare him for my sake.”
Then Perseus lowered his hand; and Polydectes, who had been trembling all this while like a coward, because he knew that he was in the wrong, let Perseus and his mother pass.
Perseus took his mother to the temple of Athené, and there the priestess made her one of the temple-sweepers; for there they knew she would be safe, and not even Polydectes would dare to drag her away from the altar. And there Perseus, and the good Dictys, and his wife, came to visit her every day; while Polydectes, not being able to get what he wanted by force, cast about in his wicked heart how he might get it by cunning.
Now he was sure that he could never get back Danae as long as Perseus was in the island; so he made a plot to rid himself of him. And first he pretended to have forgiven Perseus, and to have forgotten Danae; so that, for a while, all went as smoothly as ever.
Next he proclaimed a great feast, and invited to it all the chiefs, and land-owners, and the young men of the island, and among them Perseus, that they might all do him homage as their king, and eat of his banquet in his hall.
On the appointed day they all came; and, as the custom was then, each guest brought his present with him to the king: one a horse, another a shawl, or a ring, or a sword; and those who had nothing better brought a basket of grapes, or of game; but Perseus brought nothing, for he had nothing to bring, being but a poor sailor-lad.
He was ashamed, however, to go into the king’s presence without his gift; and he was too proud to ask Dictys to lend him one. So he stood at the door sorrowfully, watching the rich men go in; and his face grew very red as they pointed at him, and smiled, and whispered, “What has that foundling to give?”
Now this was what Polydectes wanted; and as soon as he heard that Perseus stood without, he bade them bring him in, and asked him scornfully before them all,—”Am I not your king, Perseus, and have I not invited you to my feast? Where is your present, then?”
Perseus blushed and stammered, while all the proud men round laughed, and some of them began jeering him openly. “This fellow was thrown ashore here like a piece of weed or drift-wood, and yet he is too proud to bring a gift to the king.”
“And though he does not know who his father is, he is vain enough to let the old women call him the son of Zeus.”
And so forth, till poor Perseus grew mad with shame, and hardly knowing what he said, cried out,—”A present! who are you who talk of presents? See if I do not bring a nobler one than all of yours together!”
So he said, boasting; and yet he felt in his heart that he was braver than all those scoffers, and more able to do some glorious deed.
“Hear him! Hear the boaster! What is it to be?” cried they all, laughing louder than ever.
Then his dream at Samos came into his mind, and he cried aloud, “The head of the Gorgon.”
He was half afraid after he had said the words; for all laughed louder than ever, and Polydectes loudest of all.
“You have promised to bring me the Gorgon’s head? Then never appear again in this island without it. Go!”
Perseus ground his teeth with rage, for he saw that he had fallen into a trap; but his promise lay upon him, and he went out without a word.
Down to the cliffs he went, and looked across the broad blue sea; and he wondered if his dream were true, and prayed in the bitterness of his soul.
“Pallas Athené, was my dream true? and shall I slay the Gorgon? If thou didst really show me her face, let me not come to shame as a liar and boastful. Rashly and angrily I promised; but cunningly and patiently will I perform.”
But there was no answer, nor sign; neither thunder nor any appearance; not even a cloud in the sky.
And three times Perseus called weeping. “Rashly and angrily I promised; but cunningly and patiently will I perform.”
Then he saw afar off above the sea a small white cloud, as bright as silver. And it came on, nearer and nearer, till its brightness dazzled his eyes.
Perseus wondered at that strange cloud, for there was no other cloud all round the sky; and he trembled as it touched the cliff below. And as it touched, it broke, and parted, and within it appeared Pallas Athené, as he had seen her at Samos in his dream, and beside her a young man more light-limbed than the stag, whose eyes were like sparks of fire. By his side was a scimitar of diamond, all of one clear precious stone, and on his feet were golden sandals, from the heels of which grew living wings.
They looked upon Perseus keenly, and yet they never moved their eyes; and they came up the cliffs towards him more swiftly than the sea-gull, and yet they never moved their feet, nor did the breeze stir the robes about their limbs; only the wings of the youth’s sandals quivered, like a hawk’s when he hangs above the cliff. And Perseus fell down and worshipped, for he knew that they were more than man.
But Athené stood before him and spoke gently, and bid him have no fear. Then—
“Perseus,” she said, “he who overcomes in one trial merits thereby a sharper trial still. You have braved Polydectes, and done manfully. Dare you brave Medusa the Gorgon?”
And Perseus said, “Try me; for since you spoke to me in Samos a new soul has come into my breast, and I should be ashamed not to dare anything which I can do. Show me, then, how I can do this!”
“Perseus,” said Athené, “think well before you attempt; for this deed requires a seven years’ journey, in which you cannot repent or turn back nor escape; but if your heart fails you, you must die in the unshapen land, where no man will ever find your bones.”
“Better so than live here, useless and despised,” said Perseus. “Tell me, then, oh tell me, fair and wise Goddess, of your great kindness and condescension, how I can do but this one thing, and then, if need be, die!”
Then Athené smiled and said,—
“Be patient, and listen; for if you forget my words, you will indeed die. You must go northward to the country of the Hyperboreans, who live beyond the pole, at the sources of the cold north wind; till you find the three Grey Sisters, who have but one eye and one tooth between them. You must ask them the way to the Nymphs, the daughters of the Evening Star, who dance about the golden tree, in the Atlantic island of the west. They will tell you the way to the Gorgon, that you may slay her, my enemy, the mother of monstrous beasts. Once she was a maiden as beautiful as morn, till in her pride she sinned a sin at which the sun hid his face; and from that day her hair was turned to vipers, and her hands to eagle’s claws; and her heart was filled with shame and rage, and her lips with bitter venom; and her eyes became so terrible that whosoever looks on them is turned to stone; and her children are the winged horse, and the giant of the golden sword; and her grandchildren are Echidna the witch-adder, and Geryon the three-headed tyrant, who feeds his herds beside the herds of hell. So she became the sister of the Gorgons, Stheino and Euryte the abhorred, the daughters of the Queen of the Sea. Touch them not, for they are immortal: but bring me only Medusa’s head.”
“And I will bring it!” said Perseus; “but how am I to escape her eyes? Will she not freeze me too into stone?”
“You shall take this polished shield,” said Athené; “and when you come near her look not at her herself, but at her image in the brass; so you may strike her safely. And when you have struck off her head, wrap it, with your face turned away, in the folds of the goat-skin on which the shield hangs, the hide of Amaltheié, the nurse of the Ægis-holder. So you will bring it safely back to me, and win to yourself renown, and a place among the heroes who feast with the Immortals upon the peak where no winds blow.”
Then Perseus said, “I will go, though I die in going. But how shall I cross the seas without a ship? And who will show me my way? And when I find her, how shall I slay her, if her scales be iron and brass?”
Then the young man spoke: “These sandals of mine will bear you across the seas, and over hill and dale like a bird, as they bear me all day long; for I am Hermes, the far-famed Argus-slayer, the messenger of the Immortals who dwell on Olympus.”
Then Perseus fell down and worshipped, while the young man spoke again.
“The sandals themselves will guide you on the road, for they are divine and cannot stray; and this sword itself, the Argus-slayer, will kill her, for it is divine, and needs no second stroke. Arise, and gird them on, and go forth.”
So Perseus arose, and girded on the sandals and the sword.
And Athené cried, “Now leap from the cliff and be gone.”
But Perseus lingered.
“May I not bid farewell to my mother and to Dictys? And may I not offer burnt-offerings to you, and to Hermes the far-famed Argus-slayer, and to Father Zeus above?”
“You shall not bid farewell to your mother, lest your heart relent at her weeping. I will comfort her and Dictys until you return in peace. Nor shall you offer burnt-offerings to the Olympians; for your offering shall be Medusa’s head. Leap, and trust in the armour of the Immortals.”
Then Perseus looked down the cliff and shuddered; but he was ashamed to show his dread. Then he thought of Medusa and the renown before him, and he leaped into the empty air.
And behold, instead of falling he floated, and stood, and ran along the sky. He looked back, but Athené had vanished, and Hermes; and the sandals led him on northward ever, like a crane who follows the spring toward the Ister fens.