The Heroes or Greek Fairy Tales for my Children

Page: 81

‘Ah, poor souls!’ said the stranger. ‘Well for them that I looked back and saw them! And well for me too, for I shall have the more guests at my feast. Wait awhile till I go down and call them, and we will eat and drink together the livelong night. Happy am I, to whom Heaven sends so many guests at once!’

And he ran back down the hill, waving his hand and shouting, to the merchants, while Theseus went slowly up the steep pass.

But as he went up he met an aged man, who had been gathering drift-wood in the torrent-bed. He had laid down his faggot in the road, and was trying to lift it again to his shoulder. And when he saw Theseus, he called to him, and said—

‘O fair youth, help me up with my burden, for my limbs are stiff and weak with years.’

Then Theseus lifted the burden on his back. And the old man blest him, and then looked earnestly upon him, and said—

‘Who are you, fair youth, and wherefore travel you this doleful road?’

‘Who I am my parents know; but I travel this doleful road because I have been invited by a hospitable man, who promises to feast me, and to make me sleep upon I know not what wondrous bed.’

Then the old man clapped his hands together and cried—

‘O house of Hades, man-devouring! will thy maw never be full? Know, fair youth, that you are going to torment and to death, for he who met you (I will requite your kindness by another) is a robber and a murderer of men. Whatsoever stranger he meets he entices him hither to death; and as for this bed of which he speaks, truly it fits all comers, yet none ever rose alive off it save me.’

‘Why?’ asked Theseus, astonished.

‘Because, if a man be too tall for it, he lops his limbs till they be short enough, and if he be too short, he stretches his limbs till they be long enough: but me only he spared, seven weary years agone; for I alone of all fitted his bed exactly, so he spared me, and made me his slave. And once I was a wealthy merchant, and dwelt in brazen-gated Thebes; but now I hew wood and draw water for him, the torment of all mortal men.’

Then Theseus said nothing; but he ground his teeth together.

‘Escape, then,’ said the old man, ‘for he will have no pity on thy youth. But yesterday he brought up hither a young man and a maiden, and fitted them upon his bed; and the young man’s hands and feet he cut off, but the maiden’s limbs he stretched until she died, and so both perished miserably—but I am tired of weeping over the slain. And therefore he is called Procrustes the stretcher, though his father called him Damastes. Flee from him: yet whither will you flee? The cliffs are steep, and who can climb them? and there is no other road.’