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From Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
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Age Rating 8 to 10.
When Jason, the son of the dethroned King of Iolchos, was a little
boy, he was sent away from his parents, and placed under the queerest
schoolmaster that ever you heard of. This learned person was one of the
people, or quadrupeds, called Centaurs. He lived in a cavern, and had
the body and legs of a white horse, with the head and shoulders of a
man. His name was Chiron; and, in spite of his odd appearance, he was a
very excellent teacher, and had several scholars, who afterwards did him
credit by making a great figure in the world. The famous Hercules was
one, and so was Achilles, and Philoctetes likewise, and Aesculapius, who
acquired immense repute as a doctor. The good Chiron taught his pupils
how to play upon the harp, and how to cure diseases, and how to use the
sword and shield, together with various other branches of education, in
which the lads of those days used to be instructed, instead of writing
I have sometimes suspected that Master Chiron was not really very
different from other people, but that, being a kind-hearted and merry
old fellow, he was in the habit of making believe that he was a horse,
and scrambling about the schoolroom on all fours, and letting the little
boys ride upon his back. And so, when his scholars had grown up, and
grown old, and were trotting their grandchildren on their knees, they
told them about the sports of their school days; and these young folks
took the idea that their grandfathers had been taught their letters by
a Centaur, half man and half horse. Little children, not quite
understanding what is said to them, often get such absurd notions into
their heads, you know.
Be that as it may, it has always been told for a fact (and always will
be told, as long as the world lasts), that Chiron, with the head of a
schoolmaster, had the body and legs of a horse. Just imagine the grave
old gentleman clattering and stamping into the schoolroom on his four
hoofs, perhaps treading on some little fellow's toes, flourishing his
switch tail instead of a rod, and, now and then, trotting out of doors
to eat a mouthful of grass! I wonder what the blacksmith charged him for
a set of iron shoes?
So Jason dwelt in the cave, with this four-footed Chiron, from the time
that he was an infant, only a few months old, until he had grown to
the full height of a man. He became a very good harper, I suppose, and
skilful in the use of weapons, and tolerably acquainted with herbs and
other doctor's stuff, and, above all, an admirable horseman; for, in
teaching young people to ride, the good Chiron must have been without
a rival among schoolmasters. At length, being now a tall and athletic
youth, Jason resolved to seek his fortune in the world, without asking
Chiron's advice, or telling him anything about the matter. This was very
unwise, to be sure; and I hope none of you, my little hearers, will ever
follow Jason's example.
But, you are to understand, he had heard how that he himself was a
prince royal, and how his father, King Jason, had been deprived of
the kingdom of Iolchos by a certain Pelias, who would also have killed
Jason, had he not been hidden in the Centaur's cave. And, being come
to the strength of a man, Jason determined to set all this business to
rights, and to punish the wicked Pelias for wronging his dear father,
and to cast him down from the throne, and seat himself there instead.
With this intention, he took a spear in each hand, and threw a leopard's
skin over his shoulders, to keep off the rain, and set forth on his
travels, with his long yellow ringlets waving in the wind. The part of
his dress on which he most prided himself was a pair of sandals, that
had been his father's. They were handsomely embroidered, and were tied
upon his feet with strings of gold. But his whole attire was such as
people did not very often see; and as he passed along, the women and
children ran to the doors and windows, wondering whither this beautiful
youth was journeying, with his leopard's skin and his golden-tied
sandals, and what heroic deeds he meant to perform, with a spear in his
right hand and another in his left.
I know not how far Jason had traveled, when he came to a turbulent
river, which rushed right across his pathway, with specks of white
foam among its black eddies, hurrying tumultuously onward, and roaring
angrily as it went. Though not a very broad river in the dry seasons of
the year, it was now swollen by heavy rains and by the melting of the
snow on the sides of Mount Olympus; and it thundered so loudly, and
looked so wild and dangerous, that Jason, bold as he was, thought it
prudent to pause upon the brink. The bed of the stream seemed to be
strewn with sharp and rugged rocks, some of which thrust themselves
above the water. By and by, an uprooted tree, with shattered branches,
came drifting along the current, and got entangled among the rocks. Now
and then, a drowned sheep, and once the carcass of a cow, floated past.
In short, the swollen river had already done a great deal of mischief.
It was evidently too deep for Jason to wade, and too boisterous for him
to swim; he could see no bridge; and as for a boat, had there been any,
the rocks would have broken it to pieces in an instant.
"See the poor lad," said a cracked voice close to his side. "He must
have had but a poor education, since he does not know how to cross
a little stream like this. Or is he afraid of wetting his fine
golden-stringed sandals? It is a pity his four-footed schoolmaster is
not here to carry him safely across on his back!"
Jason looked round greatly surprised, for he did not know that anybody
was near. But beside him stood an old woman, with a ragged mantle over
her head, leaning on a staff, the top of which was carved into the shape
of a cuckoo. She looked very aged, and wrinkled, and infirm; and yet her
eyes, which were as brown as those of an ox, were so extremely large
and beautiful, that, when they were fixed on Jason's eyes, he could
see nothing else but them. The old woman had a pomegranate in her hand,
although the fruit was then quite out of season.
"Whither are you going, Jason?" she now asked.
She seemed to know his name, you will observe; and, indeed, those great
brown eyes looked as if they had a knowledge of everything, whether past
or to come. While Jason was gazing at her, a peacock strutted forward,
and took his stand at the old woman's side.
"I am going to Iolchos," answered the young man, "to bid the wicked
King Pelias come down from my father's throne, and let me reign in his
"Ah, well, then," said the old woman, still with the same cracked voice,
"if that is all your business, you need not be in a very great hurry.
Just take me on your back, there's a good youth, and carry me across the
river. I and my peacock have something to do on the other side, as well
"Good mother," replied Jason, "your business can hardly be so important
as the pulling down a king from his throne. Besides, as you may see
for yourself, the river is very boisterous; and if I should chance to
stumble, it would sweep both of us away more easily than it has carried
off yonder uprooted tree. I would gladly help you if I could; but I
doubt whether I am strong enough to carry you across."
"Then," said she, very scornfully, "neither are you strong enough to
pull King Pelias off his throne. And, Jason, unless you will help an old
woman at her need, you ought not to be a king. What are kings made for,
save to succor the feeble and distressed? But do as you please. Either
take me on your back, or with my poor old limbs I shall try my best to
struggle across the stream."
Saying this, the old woman poked with her staff in the river, as if to
find the safest place in its rocky bed where she might make the first
step. But Jason, by this time, had grown ashamed of his reluctance to
help her. He felt that he could never forgive himself, if this poor
feeble creature should come to any harm in attempting to wrestle against
the headlong current. The good Chiron, whether half horse or no, had
taught him that the noblest use of his strength was to assist the weak;
and also that he must treat every young woman as if she were his sister,
and every old one like a mother. Remembering these maxims, the vigorous
and beautiful young man knelt down, and requested the good dame to mount
upon his back.
"The passage seems to me not very safe," he remarked. "But as your
business is so urgent, I will try to carry you across. If the river
sweeps you away, it shall take me too."
"That, no doubt, will be a great comfort to both of us," quoth the old
woman. "But never fear. We shall get safely across."
So she threw her arms around Jason's neck; and lifting her from the
ground, he stepped boldly into the raging and foaming current, and began
to stagger away from the shore. As for the peacock, it alighted on the
old dame's shoulder. Jason's two spears, one in each hand, kept him
from stumbling, and enabled him to feel his way among the hidden rocks;
although every instant, he expected that his companion and himself would
go down the stream, together with the driftwood of shattered trees, and
the carcasses of the sheep and cow. Down came the cold, snowy torrent
from the steep side of Olympus, raging and thundering as if it had a
real spite against Jason, or, at all events, were determined to snatch
off his living burden from his shoulders. When he was half way across,
the uprooted tree (which I have already told you about) broke loose
from among the rocks, and bore down upon him, with all its splintered
branches sticking out like the hundred arms of the giant Briareus. It
rushed past, however, without touching him. But the next moment his
foot was caught in a crevice between two rocks, and stuck there so fast,
that, in the effort to get free, he lost one of his golden-stringed
At this accident Jason could not help uttering a cry of vexation.
"What is the matter, Jason?" asked the old woman.
"Matter enough," said the young man. "I have lost a sandal here among
the rocks. And what sort of a figure shall I cut, at the court of King
Pelias, with a golden-stringed sandal on one foot, and the other foot
"Do not take it to heart," answered his companion cheerily. "You never
met with better fortune than in losing that sandal. It satisfies me that
you are the very person whom the Speaking Oak has been talking about."
There was no time, just then, to inquire what the Speaking Oak had said.
But the briskness of her tone encouraged the young man; and, besides, he
had never in his life felt so vigorous and mighty as since taking this
old woman on his back. Instead of being exhausted, he gathered strength
as he went on; and, struggling up against the torrent, he at last gained
the opposite shore, clambered up the bank, and set down the old dame and
her peacock safely on the grass. As soon as this was done, however, he
could not help looking rather despondently at his bare foot, with only a
remnant of the golden string of the sandal clinging round his ankle.
"You will get a handsomer pair of sandals by and by," said the old
woman, with a kindly look out of her beautiful brown eyes. "Only let
King Pelias get a glimpse of that bare foot, and you shall see him turn
as pale as ashes, I promise you. There is your path. Go along, my good
Jason, and my blessing go with you. And when you sit on your throne
remember the old woman whom you helped over the river."
With these words, she hobbled away, giving him a smile over her shoulder
as she departed.
Whether the light of her beautiful brown eyes threw a glory round
about her, or whatever the cause might be, Jason fancied that there was
something very noble and majestic in her figure, after all, and that,
though her gait seemed to be a rheumatic hobble, yet she moved with as
much grace and dignity as any queen on earth. Her peacock, which had now
fluttered down from her shoulder, strutted behind her in a prodigious
pomp, and spread out its magnificent tail on purpose for Jason to admire
When the old dame and her peacock were out of sight, Jason set forward
on his journey. After traveling a pretty long distance, he came to a
town situated at the foot of a mountain, and not a great way from the
shore of the sea. On the outside of the town there was an immense crowd
of people, not only men and women, but children too, all in their
best clothes, and evidently enjoying a holiday. The crowd was thickest
towards the sea-shore; and in that direction, over the people's heads,
Jason saw a wreath of smoke curling upward to the blue sky. He inquired
of one of the multitude what town it was near by, and why so many
persons were here assembled together.
"This is the kingdom of Iolchos," answered the man, "and we are the
subjects of King Pelias. Our monarch has summoned us together, that we
may see him sacrifice a black bull to Neptune, who, they say, is his
majesty's father. Yonder is the king, where you see the smoke going up
from the altar."
While the man spoke he eyed Jason with great curiosity; for his garb
was quite unlike that of the Iolchians, and it looked very odd to see a
youth with a leopard's skin over his shoulders, and each hand grasping
a spear. Jason perceived, too, that the man stared particularly at
his feet, one of which, you remember, was bare, while the other was
decorated with his father's golden-stringed sandal.
"Look at him! only look at him!" said the man to his next neighbor. "Do
you see? He wears but one sandal!"
Upon this, first one person, and then another, began to stare at Jason,
and everybody seemed to be greatly struck with something in his aspect;
though they turned their eyes much oftener towards his feet than to any
other part of his figure. Besides, he could hear them whispering to one
"One sandal! One sandal!" they kept saying. "The man with one sandal!
Here he is at last! Whence has he come? What does he mean to do? What
will the king say to the one-sandaled man?"
Poor Jason was greatly abashed, and made up his mind that the people
of Iolchos were exceedingly ill-bred, to take such public notice of an
accidental deficiency in his dress. Meanwhile, whether it were that they
hustled him forward, or that Jason, of his own accord, thrust a passage
through the crowd, it so happened that he soon found himself close to
the smoking altar, where King Pelias was sacrificing the black bull. The
murmur and hum of the multitude, in their surprise at the spectacle
of Jason with his one bare foot, grew so loud that it disturbed the
ceremonies; and the king, holding the great knife with which he was just
going to cut the bull's throat, turned angrily about, and fixed his
eyes on Jason. The people had now withdrawn from around him, so that
the youth stood in an open space, near the smoking altar, front to front
with the angry King Pelias.
"Who are you?" cried the king, with a terrible frown. "And how dare you
make this disturbance, while I am sacrificing a black bull to my father
"It is no fault of mine," answered Jason. "Your majesty must blame the
rudeness of your subjects, who have raised all this tumult because one
of my feet happens to be bare."
When Jason said this, the king gave a quick startled glance down at his
"Ha!" muttered he, "here is the one-sandaled fellow, sure enough! What
can I do with him?"
And he clutched more closely the great knife in his hand, as if he were
half a mind to slay Jason, instead of the black bull. The people round
about caught up the king's words, indistinctly as they were uttered; and
first there was a murmur amongst them, and then a loud shout.
"The one-sandaled man has come! The prophecy must be fulfilled!"
For you are to know, that, many years before, King Pelias had been told
by the Speaking Oak of Dodona, that a man with one sandal should cast
him down from his throne. On this account, he had given strict orders
that nobody should ever come into his presence, unless both sandals were
securely tied upon his feet; and he kept an officer in his palace, whose
sole business it was to examine people's sandals, and to supply them
with a new pair, at the expense of the royal treasury, as soon as the
old ones began to wear out. In the whole course of the king's reign,
he had never been thrown into such a fright and agitation as by the
spectacle of poor Jason's bare foot. But, as he was naturally a bold and
hard-hearted man, he soon took courage, and began to consider in what
way he might rid himself of this terrible one-sandaled stranger.
"My good young man," said King Pelias, taking the softest tone
imaginable, in order to throw Jason off his guard, "you are excessively
welcome to my kingdom. Judging by your dress, you must have traveled a
long distance, for it is not the fashion to wear leopard skins in this
part of the world. Pray what may I call your name? and where did you
receive your education?"
"My name is Jason," answered the young stranger. "Ever since my infancy,
I have dwelt in the cave of Chiron the Centaur. He was my instructor,
and taught me music, and horsemanship, and how to cure wounds, and
likewise how to inflict wounds with my weapons!"
"I have heard of Chiron the schoolmaster," replied King Pelias, "and
how that there is an immense deal of learning and wisdom in his head,
although it happens to be set on a horse's body. It gives me great
delight to see one of his scholars at my court. But to test how much you
have profited under so excellent a teacher, will you allow me to ask you
a single question?"
"I do not pretend to be very wise," said Jason. "But ask me what you
please, and I will answer to the best of my ability."
Now King Pelias meant cunningly to entrap the young man, and to make him
say something that should be the cause of mischief and distraction to
himself. So, with a crafty and evil smile upon his face, he spoke as
"What would you do, brave Jason," asked he, "if there were a man in
the world, by whom, as you had reason to believe, you were doomed to
be ruined and slain--what would you do, I say, if that man stood before
you, and in your power?"
When Jason saw the malice and wickedness which King Pelias could not
prevent from gleaming out of his eyes, he probably guessed that the king
had discovered what he came for, and that he intended to turn his own
words against himself. Still he scorned to tell a falsehood. Like an
upright and honorable prince as he was, he determined to speak out the
real truth. Since the king had chosen to ask him the question, and since
Jason had promised him an answer, there was no right way save to tell
him precisely what would be the most prudent thing to do, if he had his
worst enemy in his power.
Therefore, after a moment's consideration, he spoke up, with a firm and
"I would send such a man," said he, "in quest of the Golden Fleece!"
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