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The Gorgon's Head






Source: Myths And Legends Of All Nations.

Perseus was the son of Danae, who was the daughter of a king. And when
Perseus was a very little boy, some wicked people put his mother and
himself into a chest and set them afloat upon the sea. The wind blew
freshly and drove the chest away from the shore, and the uneasy
billows tossed it up and down; while Danae clasped her child closely
to her bosom, and dreaded that some big wave would dash its foamy
crest over them both. The chest sailed on, however, and neither sank
nor was upset, until, when night was coming, it floated so near an
island that it got entangled in a fisherman's nets and was drawn out
high and dry upon the sand. This island was called Seriphus and it was
reigned over by King Polydectes, who happened to be the fisherman's
brother.

This fisherman, I am glad to tell you, was an exceedingly humane and
upright man. He showed great kindness to Danae and her little boy, and
continued to befriend them until Perseus had grown to be a handsome
youth, very strong and active and skilful in the use of arms. Long
before this time King Polydectes had seen the two strangers--the
mother and her child--who had come to his dominions in a floating
chest. As he was not good and kind, like his brother the fisherman,
but extremely wicked, he resolved to send Perseus on a dangerous
enterprise, in which he would probably be killed, and then to do some
great mischief to Danae herself. So this bad-hearted king spent a long
while in considering what was the most dangerous thing that a young
man could possibly undertake to perform. At last, having hit upon an
enterprise that promised to turn out as fatally as he desired, he sent
for the youthful Perseus.

The young man came to the palace and found the king sitting upon his
throne.

"Perseus," said King Polydectes, smiling craftily upon him, "you are
grown up a fine young man. You and your good mother have received a
great deal of kindness from myself, as well as from my worthy brother
the fisherman, and I suppose you would not be sorry to repay some of
it."

"Please, your Majesty," answered Perseus, "I would willingly risk my
life to do so."

"Well, then," continued the king, still with a cunning smile on his
lips, "I have a little adventure to propose to you, and as you are a
brave and enterprising youth, you will doubtless look upon it as a
great piece of good luck to have so rare an opportunity of
distinguishing yourself. You must know, my good Perseus, I think of
getting married to the beautiful Princess Hippodamia, and it is
customary on these occasions to make the bride a present of some
far-fetched and elegant curiosity. I have been a little perplexed, I
must honestly confess, where to obtain anything likely to please a
princess of her exquisite taste. But this morning, I flatter myself, I
have thought of precisely the article."

"And can I assist your Majesty in obtaining it?" cried Perseus,
eagerly.

"You can if you are as brave a youth as I believe you to be," replied
King Polydectes with the utmost graciousness of manner. "The bridal
gift which I have set my heart on presenting to the beautiful
Hippodamia is the head of the Gorgon Medusa with the snaky locks; and
I depend on you, my dear Perseus, to bring it to me. So, as I am
anxious to settle affairs with the princess, the sooner you go in
quest of the Gorgon, the better I shall be pleased."

"I will set out tomorrow morning," answered Perseus.

"Pray do so, my gallant youth," rejoined the king. "And, Perseus, in
cutting off the Gorgon's head, be careful to make a clean stroke, so
as not to injure its appearance. You must bring it home in the very
best condition in order to suit the exquisite taste of the beautiful
Princess Hippodamia."

Perseus left the palace, but was scarcely out of hearing before
Polydectes burst into a laugh, being greatly amused, wicked king that
he was, to find how readily the young man fell into the snare. The
news quickly spread abroad that Perseus had undertaken to cut off the
head of Medusa with the snaky locks. Everybody was rejoiced, for most
of the inhabitants of the island were as wicked as the king himself
and would have liked nothing better than to see some enormous mischief
happen to Danae and her son. The only good man in this unfortunate
island of Seriphus appears to have been the fisherman. As Perseus
walked along, therefore, the people pointed after him and made mouths,
and winked to one another and ridiculed him as loudly as they dared.

"Ho, ho!" cried they; "Medusa's snakes will sting him soundly!"

Now, there were three Gorgons alive at that period, and they were the
most strange and terrible monsters that had ever been since the world
was made, or that have been seen in after days, or that are likely to
be seen in all time to come. I hardly know what sort of creature or
hobgoblin to call them. They were three sisters and seem to have borne
some distant resemblance to women, but were really a very frightful
and mischievous species of dragon. It is, indeed, difficult to imagine
what hideous beings these three sisters were. Why, instead of locks of
hair, if you can believe men, they had each of them a hundred enormous
snakes growing on their heads, all alive, twisting, wriggling, curling
and thrusting out their venomous tongues, with forked stings at the
end! The teeth of the Gorgons were terribly long tusks, their hands
were made of brass, and their bodies were all over scales, which, if
not iron, were something as hard and impenetrable. They had wings,
too, and exceedingly splendid ones, I can assure you, for every
feather in them was pure, bright, glittering, burnished gold; and they
looked very dazzling, no doubt, when the Gorgons were flying about in
the sunshine.

But when people happened to catch a glimpse of their glittering
brightness, aloft in the air, they seldom stopped to gaze, but ran and
hid themselves as speedily as they could. You will think, perhaps,
that they were afraid of being stung by the serpents that served the
Gorgons instead of hair--or of having their heads bitten off by their
ugly tusks--or of being torn all to pieces by their brazen claws.
Well, to be sure, these were some of the dangers, but by no means the
greatest nor the most difficult to avoid. For the worst thing about
these abominable Gorgons was that if once a poor mortal fixed his eyes
full upon one of their faces, he was certain that very instant to be
changed from warm flesh and blood into cold and lifeless stone!

Thus, as you will easily perceive, it was a very dangerous adventure
that the wicked King Polydectes had contrived for this innocent young
man. Perseus himself, when he had thought over the matter, could not
help seeing that he had very little chance of coming safely through
it, and that he was far more likely to become a stone image than to
bring back the head of Medusa with the snaky locks. For, not to speak
of other difficulties, there was one which it would have puzzled an
older man than Perseus to get over. Not only must he fight with and
slay this golden-winged, iron-scaled, long-tusked, brazen-clawed,
snaky-haired monster, but he must do it with his eyes shut, or, at
least, without so much as a glance at the enemy with whom he was
contending. Else, while his arm was lifted to strike, he would stiffen
into stone and stand with that uplifted arm for centuries, until time
and the wind and weather should crumble him quite away. This would be
a very sad thing to befall a young man who wanted to perform a great
many brave deeds and to enjoy a great deal of happiness in this bright
and beautiful world.

So disconsolate did these thoughts make him that Perseus could not
bear to tell his mother what he had undertaken to do. He therefore
took his shield, girded on his sword and crossed over from the island
to the mainland, where he sat down in a solitary place and hardly
refrained from shedding tears.

But while he was in this sorrowful mood, he heard a voice close beside
him.

"Perseus," said the voice, "why are you sad?"

He lifted his head from his hands, in which he had hidden it, and
behold! all alone as Perseus had supposed himself to be, there was a
stranger in the solitary place. It was a brisk, intelligent and
remarkably shrewd-looking young man, with a cloak over his shoulders,
an odd sort of cap on his head, a strangely twisted staff in his hand
and a short and very crooked sword hanging by his side. He was
exceedingly light and active in his figure, like a person much
accustomed to gymnastic exercises and well able to leap or run. Above
all, the stranger had such a cheerful, knowing and helpful aspect
(though it was certainly a little mischievous, into the bargain) that
Perseus could not help feeling his spirits grow livelier as he gazed
at him. Besides, being really a courageous youth, he felt greatly
ashamed that anybody should have found him with tears in his eyes like
a timid little schoolboy, when, after all, there might be no occasion
for despair. So Perseus wiped his eyes and answered the stranger
pretty briskly, putting on as brave a look as he could.

"I am not so very sad," said he, "only thoughtful about an adventure
that I have undertaken."

"Oho!" answered the stranger. "Well, tell me all about it and
possibly I may be of service to you. I have helped a good many young
men through adventures that looked difficult enough beforehand.
Perhaps you may have heard of me. I have more names than one, but the
name of Quicksilver suits me as well as any other. Tell me what the
trouble is and we will talk the matter over and see what can be done."

The stranger's words and manner put Perseus into quite a different
mood from his former one. He resolved to tell Quicksilver all his
difficulties, since he could not easily be worse off than he already
was, and, very possibly, his new friend might give him some advice
that would turn out well in the end. So he let the stranger know in
few words precisely what was the case--how the King Polydectes wanted
the head of Medusa with the snaky locks as a bridal gift for the
beautiful Princess Hippodamia and how that he had undertaken to get it
for him, but was afraid of being turned into stone.

"And that would be a great pity," said Quicksilver, with his
mischievous smile. "You would make a very handsome marble statue, it
is true, and it would be a considerable number of centuries before you
crumbled away; but, on the whole, one would rather be a young man for
a few years than a stone image for a great many."

"Oh, far rather!" exclaimed Perseus, with the tears again standing in
his eyes. "And, besides, what would my dear mother do if her beloved
son were turned into a stone?"

"Well, well, let us hope that the affair will not turn out so very
badly," replied Quicksilver in an encouraging tone. "I am the very
person to help you, if anybody can. My sister and myself will do our
utmost to bring you safe through the adventure, ugly as it now looks."

"Your sister?" repeated Perseus.

"Yes, my sister," said the stranger. "She is very wise, I promise
you; and as for myself, I generally have all my wits about me, such as
they are. If you show yourself bold and cautious, and follow our
advice, you need not fear being a stone image yet awhile. But, first
of all, you must polish your shield till you can see your face in it
as distinctly as in a mirror."

This seemed to Perseus rather an odd beginning of the adventure, for
he thought it of far more consequence that the shield should be strong
enough to defend him from the Gorgon's brazen claws than that it
should be bright enough to show him the reflection of his face.
However, concluding that Quicksilver knew better than himself, he
immediately set to work and scrubbed the shield with so much diligence
and good will that it very quickly shone like the moon at harvest
time. Quicksilver looked at it with a smile and nodded his
approbation. Then taking off his own short and crooked sword, he
girded it about Perseus, instead of the one which he had before worn.

"No sword but mine will answer your purpose," observed he; "the blade
has a most excellent temper and will cut through iron and brass as
easily as through the slenderest twig. And now we will set out. The
next thing is to find the Three Gray Women, who will tell us where to
find the Nymphs."

"The Three Gray Women!" cried Perseus, to whom this seemed only a new
difficulty in the path of his adventure. "Pray, who may the Three Gray
Women be? I never heard of them before."

"They are three very strange old ladies," said Quicksilver, laughing.
"They have but one eye among them, and only one tooth. Moreover, you
must find them out by starlight or in the dusk of the evening, for
they never show themselves by the light either of the sun or moon."

"But," said Perseus, "why should I waste my time with these Three
Gray Women? Would it not be better to set out at once in search of the
terrible Gorgons?"

"No, no," answered his friend. "There are other things to be done
before you can find your way to the Gorgons. There is nothing for it
but to hunt up these old ladies; and when we meet with them, you may
be sure that the Gorgons are not a great way off. Come, let us be
stirring!"

Perseus by this time felt so much confidence in his companion's
sagacity that he made no more objections, and professed himself ready
to begin the adventure immediately. They accordingly set out and
walked at a pretty brisk pace; so brisk, indeed, that Perseus found it
rather difficult to keep up with his nimble friend Quicksilver. To say
the truth, he had a singular idea that Quicksilver was furnished with
a pair of winged shoes, which, of course, helped him along
marvelously. And then, too, when Perseus looked sideways at him out of
the corner of his eye, he seemed to see wings on the side of his head;
although, if he turned a full gaze, there were no such things to be
perceived, but only an odd kind of cap. But at all events, the twisted
staff was evidently a great convenience to Quicksilver, and enabled
him to proceed so fast that Perseus, though a remarkably active young
man, began to be out of breath.

"Here!" cried Quicksilver at last--for he knew well enough, rogue that
he was, how hard Perseus found it to keep pace with him--"take you the
staff, for you need it a great deal more than I. Are there no better
walkers than yourself in the island of Seriphus?"

"I could walk pretty well," said Perseus, glancing slyly at his
companion's feet, "if I had only a pair of winged shoes."

"We must see about getting you a pair," answered Quicksilver.

But the staff helped Perseus along so bravely that he no longer felt
the slightest weariness. In fact, the stick seemed to be alive in his
hand and to lend some of its life to Perseus. He and Quicksilver now
walked onward at their ease, talking very sociably together; and
Quicksilver told so many pleasant stories about his former adventures
and how well his wits had served him on various occasions that Perseus
began to think him a very wonderful person. He evidently knew the
world; and nobody is so charming to a young man as a friend who has
that kind of knowledge. Perseus listened the more eagerly, in the hope
of brightening his own wits by what he heard.

At last, he happened to recollect that Quicksilver had spoken of a
sister who was to lend her assistance in the adventure which they were
now bound upon.

"Where is she?" he inquired. "Shall we not meet her soon?"

"All at the proper time," said his companion. "But this sister of
mine, you must understand, is quite a different sort of character from
myself. She is very grave and prudent, seldom smiles, never laughs and
makes it a rule not to utter a word unless she has something
particularly profound to say. Neither will she listen to any but the
wisest conversation."

"Dear me!" ejaculated Perseus; "I shall be afraid to say a syllable."

"She is a very accomplished person, I assure you," continued
Quicksilver, "and has all the arts and science at her fingers' ends.
In short, she is so immoderately wise that many people call her wisdom
personified. But to tell you the truth, she has hardly vivacity enough
for my taste; and I think you would scarcely find her so pleasant a
traveling companion as myself. She has her good points, nevertheless;
and you will find the benefit of them in your encounter with the
Gorgons."

By this time it had grown quite dusk. They were now come to a very
wild and desert place, overgrown with shaggy bushes and so silent and
solitary that nobody seemed ever to have dwelt or journeyed there. All
was waste and desolate in the gray twilight, which grew every moment
more obscure. Perseus looked about him rather disconsolately and asked
Quicksilver whether they had a great deal farther to go.

"Hist! hist!" whispered his companion. "Make no noise! This is just
the time and place to meet the Three Gray Women. Be careful that they
do not see you before you see them, for though they have but a single
eye among the three, it is as sharp-sighted as half a dozen common
eyes."

"But what must I do," asked Perseus, "when we meet them?"

Quicksilver explained to Perseus how the Three Gray Women managed with
their one eye. They were in the habit, it seems, of changing it from
one to another, as if it had been a pair of spectacles, or--which
would have suited them better--a quizzing glass. When one of the three
had kept the eye a certain time, she took it out of the socket and
passed it to one of her sisters, whose turn it might happen to be, and
who immediately clapped it into her own head and enjoyed a peep at the
visible world. Thus it will easily be understood that only one of the
Three Gray Women could see, while the other two were in utter
darkness; and, moreover, at the instant when the eye was passing from
hand to hand, none of the poor old ladies was able to see a wink. I
have heard of a great many strange things in my day, and have
witnessed not a few, but none, it seems to me, that can compare with
the oddity of these Three Gray Women all peeping through a single eye.

So thought Perseus, likewise, and was so astonished that he almost
fancied his companion was joking with him, and that there were no such
old women in the world.

"You will soon find whether I tell the truth or no," observed
Quicksilver. "Hark! hush! hist! hist! There they come now!"

Perseus looked earnestly through the dusk of the evening, and there,
sure enough, at no great distance off, he descried the Three Gray
Women. The light being so faint, he could not well make out what sort
of figures they were; only he discovered that they had long gray hair,
and as they came nearer he saw that two of them had but the empty
socket of an eye in the middle of their foreheads. But in the middle
of the third sister's forehead there was a very large, bright and
piercing eye, which sparkled like a great diamond in a ring; and so
penetrating did it seem to be that Perseus could not help thinking it
must possess the gift of seeing in the darkest midnight just as
perfectly as at noonday. The sight of three persons' eyes was melted
and collected into that single one.

Thus the three old dames got along about as comfortably, upon the
whole, as if they could all see at once. She who chanced to have the
eye in her forehead led the other two by the hands, peeping sharply
about her all the while; insomuch that Perseus dreaded lest she should
see right through the thick clump of bushes behind which he and
Quicksilver had hidden themselves. My stars! it was positively
terrible to be within reach of so very sharp an eye!

But before they reached the clump of bushes, one of the Three Gray
Women spoke.

"Sister! Sister Scarecrow!" cried she, "you have had the eye long
enough. It is my turn now!"

"Let me keep it a moment longer, Sister Nightmare," answered
Scarecrow. "I thought I had a glimpse of something behind that thick
bush."

"Well, and what of that?" retorted Nightmare, peevishly. "Can't I see
into a thick bush as easily as yourself? The eye is mine as well as
yours; and I know the use of it as well as you, or maybe a little
better. I insist upon taking a peep immediately!"

But here the third sister, whose name was Shakejoint, began to
complain, and said that it was her turn to have the eye, and that
Scarecrow and Nightmare wanted to keep it all to themselves. To end
the dispute, old Dame Scarecrow took the eye out of her forehead and
held it forth in her hand.

"Take it, one of you," cried she, "and quit this foolish quarreling.
For my part, I shall be glad of a little thick darkness. Take it
quickly, however, or I must clap it into my own head again!"

Accordingly, both Nightmare and Shakejoint put out their hands,
groping eagerly to snatch the eye out of the hand of Scarecrow. But
being both alike blind, they could not easily find where Scarecrow's
hand was; and Scarecrow, being now just as much in the dark as
Shakejoint and Nightmare, could not at once meet either of their hands
in order to put the eye into it. Thus (as you will see with half an
eye, my wise little auditors) these good old dames had fallen into a
strange perplexity. For, though the eye shone and glistened like a
star as Scarecrow held it out, yet the Gray Women caught not the least
glimpse of its light and were all three in utter darkness from too
impatient a desire to see.

Quicksilver was so much tickled at beholding Shakejoint and Nightmare
both groping for the eye, and each finding fault with Scarecrow and
one another, that he could scarcely help laughing aloud.

"Now is your time!" he whispered to Perseus. "Quick, quick! before
they can clap the eye into either of their heads. Rush out upon the
old ladies and snatch it from Scarecrow's hand!"

In an instant, while the Three Gray Women were still scolding each
other, Perseus leaped from behind the clump of bushes and made himself
master of the prize. The marvelous eye, as he held it in his hand,
shone very brightly, and seemed to look up into his face with a
knowing air, and an expression as if it would have winked had it been
provided with a pair of eyelids for that purpose. But the Gray Women
knew nothing of what had happened, and each supposing that one of her
sisters was in possession of the eye, they began their quarrel anew.
At last, as Perseus did not wish to put these respectable dames to
greater inconvenience than was really necessary, he thought it right
to explain the matter.

"My good ladies," said he, "pray do not be angry with one another. If
anybody is in fault, it is myself; for I have the honor to hold your
very brilliant and excellent eye in my own hand!"

"You! you have our eye! And who are you?" screamed the Three Gray
Women all in a breath; for they were terribly frightened, of course,
at hearing a strange voice and discovering that their eyesight had got
into the hands of they could not guess whom. "Oh, what shall we do,
sisters? what shall we do? We are all in the dark! Give us our eye!
Give us our one precious, solitary eye! You have two of your own! Give
us our eye!"

"Tell them," whispered Quicksilver to Perseus, "that they shall have
back the eye as soon as they direct you where to find the Nymphs who
have the flying slippers, the magic wallet and the helmet of
darkness."

"My dear, good, admirable old ladies," said Perseus, addressing the
Gray Women, "there is no occasion for putting yourselves into such a
fright. I am by no means a bad young man. You shall have back your
eye, safe and sound, and as bright as ever, the moment you tell me
where to find the Nymphs."

"The Nymphs! Goodness me! sisters, what Nymphs does he mean?" screamed
Scarecrow. "There are a great many Nymphs, people say; some that go a
hunting in the woods, and some that live inside of trees, and some that
have a comfortable home in fountains of water. We know nothing at all
about them. We are three unfortunate old souls that go wandering about
in the dusk and never had but one eye amongst us, and that one you have
stolen away. Oh, give it back, good stranger!--whoever you are, give it
back!"

All this while the Three Gray Women were groping with their
outstretched hands and trying their utmost to get hold of Perseus. But
he took good care to keep out of their reach.

"My respectable dames," said he--for his mother had taught him always
to use the greatest civility--"I hold your eye fast in my hand and
shall keep it safely for you until you please to tell me where to find
these Nymphs. The Nymphs, I mean, who keep the enchanted wallet, the
flying slippers and the what is it?--the helmet of invisibility."

"Mercy on us, sisters! what is the young man talking about?" exclaimed
Scarecrow, Nightmare and Shakejoint, one to another, with great
appearance of astonishment. "A pair of flying slippers, quoth he! His
heels would quickly fly higher than his head if he was silly enough to
put them on. And a helmet of invisibility! How could a helmet make him
invisible, unless it were big enough for him to hide under it? And an
enchanted wallet! What sort of a contrivance may that be, I wonder?
No, no, good stranger! we can tell you nothing of these marvelous
things. You have two eyes of your own and we have but a single one
amongst us three. You can find out such wonders better than three
blind old creatures like us."

Perseus, hearing them talk in this way, began really to think that the
Gray Women knew nothing of the matter; and, as it grieved him to put
them to so much trouble, he was just on the point of restoring their
eye and asking pardon for his rudeness in snatching it away. But
Quicksilver caught his hand.

"Don't let them make a fool of you!" said he. "These Three Gray Women
are the only persons in the world that can tell you where to find the
Nymphs, and unless you get that information you will never succeed in
cutting off the head of Medusa with the snaky locks. Keep fast hold on
the eye and all will go well."

As it turned out, Quicksilver was in the right. There are but few
things that people prize so much as they do their eyesight; and the
Gray Women valued their single eye as highly as if it had been half a
dozen, which was the number they ought to have had. Finding that there
was no other way of recovering it, they at last told Perseus what he
wanted to know. No sooner had they done so than he immediately and
with the utmost respect clapped the eye into the vacant socket in one
of their foreheads, thanked them for their kindness and bade them
farewell. Before the young man was out of hearing, however, they had
got into a new dispute, because he happened to have given the eye to
Scarecrow, who had already taken her turn of it when their trouble
with Perseus commenced.

It is greatly to be feared that the Three Gray Women were very much in
the habit of disturbing their mutual harmony by bickerings of this
sort, which was the more pity, as they could not conveniently do
without one another and were evidently intended to be inseparable
companions. As a general rule, I would advise all people, whether
sisters or brothers, old or young, who chance to have but one eye
amongst them, to cultivate forbearance and not all insist upon peeping
through it at once.

Quicksilver and Perseus, in the meantime, were making the best of
their way in quest of the Nymphs. The old dames had given them such
particular directions that they were not long in finding them out.
They proved to be very different persons from Nightmare, Shakejoint
and Scarecrow; for, instead of being old, they were young and
beautiful; and instead of one eye amongst the sisterhood, each Nymph
had two exceedingly bright eyes of her own, with which she looked very
kindly at Perseus. They seemed to be acquainted with Quicksilver, and
when he told them the adventure which Perseus had undertaken, they
made no difficulty about giving him the valuable articles that were in
their custody. In the first place, they brought out what appeared to
be a small purse, made of deer skin and curiously embroidered, and
bade him be sure and keep it safe. This was the magic wallet. The
Nymphs next produced a pair of shoes or slippers or sandals, with a
nice little pair of wings at the heel of each.

"Put them on, Perseus," said Quicksilver. "You will find yourself as
light-heeled as you can desire for the remainder of our journey."

So Perseus proceeded to put one of the slippers on, while he laid the
other on the ground by his side. Unexpectedly, however, this other
slipper spread its wings, fluttered up off the ground and would
probably have flown away if Quicksilver had not made a leap and
luckily caught it in the air.

"Be more careful," said he as he gave it back to Perseus. "It would
frighten the birds up aloft if they should see a flying slipper
amongst them."

When Perseus had got on both of these wonderful slippers, he was
altogether too buoyant to tread on earth. Making a step or two, lo and
behold! upward he popped into the air high above the heads of
Quicksilver and the Nymphs, and found it very difficult to clamber
down again. Winged slippers and all such high-flying contrivances are
seldom quite easy to manage until one grows a little accustomed to
them. Quicksilver laughed at his companion's involuntary activity and
told him that he must not be in so desperate a hurry, but must wait
for the invisible helmet.

The good-natured Nymphs had the helmet, with its dark tuft of waving
plumes, all in readiness to put upon his head. And now there happened
about as wonderful an incident as anything that I have yet told you.
The instant before the helmet was put on, there stood Perseus, a
beautiful young man, with golden ringlets and rosy cheeks, the crooked
sword by his side and the brightly polished shield upon his arm--a
figure that seemed all made up of courage, sprightliness and glorious
light. But when the helmet had descended over his white brow, there
was no longer any Perseus to be seen! Nothing but empty air! Even the
helmet that covered him with its invisibility had vanished!

"Where are you, Perseus?" asked Quicksilver.

"Why, here, to be sure!" answered Perseus very quietly, although his
voice seemed to come out of the transparent atmosphere. "Just where I
was a moment ago. Don't you see me?"

"No, indeed!" answered his friend. "You are hidden under the helmet.
But if I cannot see you, neither can the Gorgons. Follow me,
therefore, and we will try your dexterity in using the winged
slippers."

With these words, Quicksilver's cap spread its wings, as if his head
were about to fly away from his shoulders; but his whole figure rose
lightly into the air and Perseus followed. By the time they had
ascended a few hundred feet the young man began to feel what a
delightful thing it was to leave the dull earth so far beneath him and
to be able to flit about like a bird.

It was now deep night. Perseus looked upward and saw the round,
bright, silvery moon and thought that he should desire nothing better
than to soar up thither and spend his life there. Then he looked
downward again and saw the earth, with its seas and lakes, and the
silver course of its rivers, and its snowy mountain peaks, and the
breath of its fields, and the dark cluster of its woods, and its
cities of white marble; and with the moonshine sleeping over the whole
scene, it was as beautiful as the moon or any star could be. And among
other objects he saw the island of Seriphus, where his dear mother
was. Sometimes he and Quicksilver approached a cloud that at a
distance looked as if it were made of fleecy silver, although when
they plunged into it they found themselves chilled and moistened with
gray mist. So swift was their flight, however, that in an instant they
emerged from the cloud into the moonlight again. Once a high-soaring
eagle flew right against the invisible Perseus. The bravest sights
were the meteors that gleamed suddenly out as if a bonfire had been
kindled in the sky and made the moonshine pale for as much as a
hundred miles around them.

As the two companions flew onward, Perseus fancied that he could hear
the rustle of a garment close by his side; and it was on the side
opposite to the one where he beheld Quicksilver, yet only Quicksilver
was visible.

"Whose garment is this," inquired Perseus, "that keeps rustling close
beside me in the breeze?"

"Oh, it is my sister's!" answered Quicksilver. "She is coming along
with us, as I told you she would. We could do nothing without the help
of my sister. You have no idea how wise she is. She has such eyes,
too! Why, she can see you at this moment just as distinctly as if you
were not invisible, and I'll venture to say she will be the first to
discover the Gorgons."

By this time, in their swift voyage through the air, they had come
within sight of the great ocean and were soon flying over it. Far
beneath them the waves tossed themselves tumultuously in mid-sea, or
rolled a white surf line upon the long beaches, or foamed against the
rocky cliffs, with a roar that was thunderous in the lower world,
although it became a gentle murmur, like the voice of a baby half
asleep, before it reached the ears of Perseus. Just then a voice spoke
in the air close by him. It seemed to be a woman's voice and was
melodious, though not exactly what might be called sweet, but grave
and mild.

"Perseus," said the voice, "there are the Gorgons."

"Where?" exclaimed Perseus. "I cannot see them."

"On the shore of that island beneath you," replied the voice. "A
pebble dropped from your hand would strike in the midst of them."

"I told you she would be the first to discover them," said Quicksilver
to Perseus. "And there they are!"

Straight downward, two or three thousand feet below him, Perseus
perceived a small island, with the sea breaking into white foam all
around its rocky shore, except on one side, where there was a beach of
snowy sand. He descended toward it, and looking earnestly at a cluster
or heap of brightness at the foot of a precipice of black rocks,
behold, there were the terrible Gorgons! They lay fast asleep, soothed
by the thunder of the sea; for it required a tumult that would have
deafened everybody else to lull such fierce creatures into slumber.
The moonlight glistened on their steely scales and on their golden
wings, which drooped idly over the sand. Their brazen claws, horrible
to look at, were thrust out and clutched the wave-beaten fragments of
rock, while the sleeping Gorgons dreamed of tearing some poor mortal
all to pieces. The snakes that served them instead of hair seemed
likewise to be asleep, although now and then one would writhe and
lift its head and thrust out its forked tongue, emitting a drowsy
hiss, and then let itself subside among its sister snakes.

The Gorgons were more like an awful, gigantic kind of insect--immense,
golden-winged beetles or dragonflies or things of that sort--at once
ugly and beautiful--than like anything else; only that they were a
thousand and a million times as big. And with all this there was
something partly human about them, too. Luckily for Perseus, their
faces were completely hidden from him by the posture in which they
lay, for had he but looked one instant at them, he would have fallen
heavily out of the air, an image of senseless stone.

"Now," whispered Quicksilver as he hovered by the side of
Perseus--"now is your time to do the deed! Be quick, for if one of the
Gorgons should awake, you are too late!"

"Which shall I strike at?" asked Perseus, drawing his sword and
descending a little lower. "They all three look alike. All three have
snaky locks. Which of the three is Medusa?"

It must be understood that Medusa was the only one of these dragon
monsters whose head Perseus could possibly cut off. As for the other
two, let him have the sharpest sword that ever was forged, and he
might have hacked away by the hour together without doing them the
least harm.

"Be cautious," said the calm voice which had before spoken to him.
"One of the Gorgons is stirring in her sleep and is just about to turn
over. That is Medusa. Do not look at her! The sight would turn you to
stone! Look at the reflection of her face and figure in the bright
mirror of your shield."

Perseus now understood Quicksilver's motive for so earnestly exhorting
him to polish his shield. In its surface he could safely look at the
reflection of the Gorgon's face. And there it was--that terrible
countenance--mirrored in the brightness of the shield, with the
moonlight falling over it and displaying all its horror. The snakes,
whose venomous natures could not altogether sleep, kept twisting
themselves over the forehead. It was the fiercest and most horrible
face that ever was seen or imagined, and yet with a strange, fearful
and savage kind of beauty in it. The eyes were closed and the Gorgon
was still in a deep slumber; but there was an unquiet expression
disturbing her features, as if the monster was troubled with an ugly
dream. She gnashed her white tusks and dug into the sand with her
brazen claws.

The snakes, too, seemed to feel Medusa's dream and to be made more
restless by it. They twined themselves into tumultuous knots, writhed
fiercely and uplifted a hundred hissing heads without opening their
eyes.

"Now, now!" whispered Quicksilver, who was growing impatient. "Make a
dash at the monster!"

"But be calm," said the grave, melodious voice at the young man's
side. "Look in your shield as you fly downward, and take care that you
do not miss your first stroke."

Perseus flew cautiously downward, still keeping his eyes on Medusa's
face, as reflected in his shield. The nearer he came, the more
terrible did the snaky visage and metallic body of the monster grow.
At last, when he found himself hovering over her within arm's length,
Perseus uplifted his sword, while at the same instant each separate
snake upon the Gorgon's head stretched threateningly upward, and
Medusa unclosed her eyes. But she awoke too late. The sword was sharp,
the stroke fell like a lightning flash, and the head of the wicked
Medusa tumbled from her body!

"Admirably done!" cried Quicksilver. "Make haste and clap the head
into your magic wallet."

To the astonishment of Perseus, the small, embroidered wallet which he
had hung about his neck and which had hitherto been no bigger than a
purse, grew all at once large enough to contain Medusa's head. As
quick as thought, he snatched it up, with the snakes still writhing
upon it, and thrust it in.

"Your task is done," said the calm voice. "Now fly, for the other
Gorgons will do their utmost to take vengeance for Medusa's death."

It was, indeed, necessary to take flight, for Perseus had not done the
deed so quietly but that the clash of his sword and the hissing of the
snakes and the thump of Medusa's head as it tumbled upon the
sea-beaten sand awoke the other two monsters. There they sat for an
instant, sleepily rubbing their eyes with their brazen fingers, while
all the snakes on their heads reared themselves on end with surprise
and with venomous malice against they knew not what. But when the
Gorgons saw the scaly carcass of Medusa, headless, and her golden
wings all ruffled and half spread out on the sand, it was really awful
to hear what yells and screeches they set up. And then the snakes!
They sent forth a hundredfold hiss with one consent, and Medusa's
snakes answered them out of the magic wallet.

No sooner were the Gorgons broad awake than they hurtled upward into
the air, brandishing their brass talons, gnashing their horrible tusks
and flapping their huge wings so wildly that some of the golden
feathers were shaken out and floated down upon the shore. And there,
perhaps, those very feathers lie scattered till this day. Up rose the
Gorgons, as I tell you, staring horribly about, in hopes of turning
somebody to stone. Had Perseus looked them in the face or had he
fallen into their clutches, his poor mother would never have kissed
her boy again! But he took good care to turn his eyes another way; and
as he wore the helmet of invisibility, the Gorgons knew not in what
direction to follow him; nor did he fail to make the best use of the
winged slippers by soaring upward a perpendicular mile or so. At that
height, when the screams of those abominable creatures sounded faintly
beneath him, he made a straight course for the island of Seriphus, in
order to carry Medusa's head to King Polydectes.

I have no time to tell you of several marvelous things that befell
Perseus on his way homeward, such as his killing a hideous sea monster
just as it was on the point of devouring a beautiful maiden, nor how
he changed an enormous giant into a mountain of stone merely by
showing him the head of the Gorgon. If you doubt this latter story,
you may make a voyage to Africa some day or other and see the very
mountain, which is still known by the ancient giant's name.

Finally, our brave Perseus arrived at the island where he expected to
see his dear mother. But during his absence, the wicked king had
treated Danae so very ill that she was compelled to make her escape,
and had taken refuge in a temple, where some good old priests were
extremely kind to her. These praiseworthy priests and the kind-hearted
fisherman, who had first shown hospitality to Danae and little Perseus
when he found them afloat in the chest, seem to have been the only
persons on the island who cared about doing right. All the rest of the
people, as well as King Polydectes himself, were remarkably ill
behaved and deserved no better destiny than that which was now to
happen.

Not finding his mother at home, Perseus went straight to the palace
and was immediately ushered into the presence of the king. Polydectes
was by no means rejoiced to see him, for he had felt almost certain,
in his own evil mind, that the Gorgons would have torn the poor young
man to pieces and have eaten him up out of the way. However, seeing
him safely returned, he put the best face he could upon the matter and
asked Perseus how he had succeeded.

"Have you performed your promise?" inquired he. "Have you brought me
the head of Medusa with the snaky locks? If not, young man, it will
cost you dear; for I must have a bridal present for the beautiful
Princess Hippodamia and there is nothing else that she would admire so
much."

"Yes, please your Majesty," answered Perseus, in a quiet way, as if it
were no very wonderful deed for such a young man as he to perform. "I
have brought you the Gorgon's head, snaky locks and all!"

"Indeed! Pray, let me see it," quoth King Polydectes. "It must be a
very curious spectacle if all that travelers tell it be true!"

"Your Majesty is in the right," replied Perseus. "It is really an
object that will be pretty certain to fix the regards of all who look
at it. And if your Majesty think fit, I would suggest that a holiday
be proclaimed and that all your Majesty's subjects be summoned to
behold this wonderful curiosity. Few of them, I imagine, have seen a
Gorgon's head before and perhaps never may again!"

The king well knew that his subjects were an idle set of reprobates
and very fond of sight-seeing, as idle persons usually are. So he took
the young man's advice and sent out heralds and messengers in all
directions to blow the trumpet at the street corners and in the market
places and wherever two roads met, and summon everybody to court.
Thither, accordingly, came a great multitude of good-for-nothing
vagabonds, all of whom, out of pure love of mischief, would have been
glad if Perseus had met with some ill-hap in his encounter with the
Gorgons. If there were any better people in the island (as I really
hope there may have been, although the story tells nothing about any
such), they stayed quietly at home, minding their business and taking
care of their little children. Most of the inhabitants, at all events,
ran as fast as they could to the palace and shoved and pushed and
elbowed one another in their eagerness to get near a balcony on which
Perseus showed himself, holding the embroidered wallet in his hand.

On a platform within full view of the balcony sat the mighty King
Polydectes, amid his evil counselors, and with his flattering
courtiers in a semi-circle round about him. Monarch, counselors,
courtiers and subjects all gazed eagerly toward Perseus.

"Show us the head! Show us the head!" shouted the people; and there
was a fierceness in their cry as if they would tear Perseus to pieces
unless he should satisfy them with what he had to show. "Show us the
head of Medusa with the snaky locks!"

A feeling of sorrow and pity came over the youthful Perseus.

"O King Polydectes," cried he, "and ye many people, I am very loath to
show you the Gorgon's head!"

"Ah, the villain and coward!" yelled the people more fiercely than
before. "He is making game of us! He has no Gorgon's head! Show us the
head if you have it, or we will take your own head for a football!"

The evil counselors whispered bad advice in the king's ear; the
courtiers murmured, with one consent, that Perseus had shown
disrespect to their royal lord and master; and the great King
Polydectes himself waved his hand and ordered him, with the stern,
deep voice of authority, on his peril, to produce the head.

"Show me the Gorgon's head or I will cut off your own!"

And Perseus sighed.

"This instant," repeated Polydectes, "or you die!"

"Behold it then!" cried Perseus in a voice like the blast of a
trumpet.

And suddenly holding up the head, not an eyelid had time to wink
before the wicked King Polydectes, his evil counselors and all his
fierce subjects were no longer anything but the mere images of a
monarch and his people. They were all fixed forever in the look and
attitude of that moment! At the first glimpse of the terrible head of
Medusa, they whitened into marble! And Perseus thrust the head back
into his wallet and went to tell his dear mother that she need no
longer be afraid of the wicked King Polydectes.





Next: The Golden Fleece

Previous: Niobe



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