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HERCULES AND THE GOLDEN APPLES
Did you ever hear of the golden apples that grew in the garden of the Hesperides ? Ah, those were such apples as would bring a great price, by the bushel, if any of them could be found growing in the orchards of nowadays! But not so much as a seed of those apples 5 exists any longer.
And, even in the old, old, half-forgotten times, before the garden of the Hesperides was overrun with weeds, a great many people doubted whether there could be real trees that bore apples of solid gold upon their 10 branches. All had heard of them, but nobody remembered to have seen any. Children, nevertheless, used to listen, open-mouthed, to stories of the golden apple tree, and resolved to discover it, when they should be big enough. Adventurous young men, who desired 15 to do a braver thing than any of their fellows, set out in quest of this fruit. Many of them returned
no more; none of them brought back the apples. No wonder that they found it impossible to gather them! It is said that there was a dragon beneath the tree, with a hundred terrible heads, fifty of which 5 were always on the watch, while the other fifty slept.
And once the adventure was undertaken by a hero who had enjoyed very little peace or rest since he came into the world. At the time of which I am going to
speak, he was wandering through the pleasant land of 10 Italy, with a mighty club in his hand, and a bow and
quiver slung across his shoulders. He was wrapped in the skin of the biggest and fiercest lion that ever had been seen, and which he himself had killed; and
though, on the whole, he was kind, and generous, and 15 noble, there was a good deal of the lion's fierceness in
his heart. As he went on his way, he continually inquired whether that were the right road to the famous garden.
So he journeyed on and on, still making the same 20 inquiry, until, at last, he came to the brink of a river
where some beautiful young women sat twining wreaths of flowers. 'Can
you tell me, pretty maidens," asked the stranger, "whether this is the right way to the garden 25 of the Hesperides?” “The garden of the Hesperides !” cried one.
"We thought mortals had been weary of seeking it, after
so many disappointments. And pray, adventurous traveler, what do you want there?”
"A certain king, who is my cousin,” replied he, “has ordered me to get him three of the golden apples.”
“And do you know," asked the damsel who had 5 first spoken, “that a terrible dragon, with a hundred heads, keeps watch under the golden apple tree?"
“I know it well,” answered the stranger, calmly. “But, from my cradle upwards, it has been my business, and almost my pastime, to deal with serpents 10 and dragons.”
The young women looked at his massive club, and at the shaggy lion's skin which he wore, and likewise at his heroic limbs and figure; and they whispered to each other that the stranger appeared to be one who 15 might reasonably expect to perform deeds far beyond the might of other men. But, then, the dragon with a hundred heads! What mortal, even if he possessed a hundred lives, could hope to escape the fangs of such a monster?
“Go back," cried they all, — “go back to your own home! Your mother, beholding you safe and sound, will shed tears of joy; and what can she do more, should you win ever so great a victory? No matter for the golden apples! No matter for the king, your 25 cruel cousin! We do not wish the dragon with the hundred heads to eat you up!”
The stranger seemed to grow impatient at these remonstrances. He carelessly lifted his mighty club, and let it fall upon a rock that lay half buried in the earth, near by. With the force of that idle blow, the great 5 rock was shattered all to pieces.
“Do you not believe," said he, looking at the damsels with a smile, “that such a blow would have crushed one of the dragon's hundred heads ?”
Then he sat down on the grass, and told them the 10 story of his life, from the day when he was first cradled
in a warrior's brazen shield. While he lay there, two immense serpents came gliding over the floor, and opened their hideous jaws to devour him; and he, a
baby of a few months old, had gripped one of the fierce 15 snakes in each of his little fists, and strangled them to
death. When he was but a stripling, he had killed a huge lion, almost as big as the one whose vast and shaggy hide he now wore upon his shoulders.
When the stranger had finished the story of his 20 adventures, he looked around at the attentive faces of the maidens.
“Perhaps you may have heard of me before,” said he, modestly; "my name is Hercules !”
“We had already guessed it,” replied the maidens; 25" for your wonderful deeds are known all over the
world. We do not think it strange, any longer, that you should set out in quest of the golden apples of the Hesperides. Come, sisters, let us crown the hero with flowers!”
Then they flung beautiful wreaths over his stately head and mighty shoulders, so that the lion's skin was almost entirely covered with roses. They took posses- 5 sion of his ponderous club, and so entwined it about with the brightest, softest, and most fragrant blossoms that not a finger's breadth of its oaken substance could be seen. It looked like a huge bunch of flowers. Lastly, they joined hands and danced around him, chanting 10 words which became poetry of their own accord, and grew into a song, in honor of the illustrious Hercules.
And Hercules was rejoiced, as any other hero would have been, to know that these fair young girls had heard of the valiant deeds which it had cost him so much toil 15 and danger to achieve. But still he was not satisfied. He could not think that what he had already done was worthy of so much honor, while there remained any bold or difficult adventure to be undertaken.
“Dear maidens,” said he, when they paused to take 20 breath, “now that you know my name, will you not tell me how I am to reach the garden of the Hesperides ?”
“Ah! must you go so soon?” they exclaimed. “You that have performed so many wonders, and spent such a toilsome life — cannot you content yourself to repose a 25 little while on the margin of this peaceful river?”
Hercules shook his head. “I must depart,” said he.