Padraic Colum > The Golden Fleece > Part III. The Heroes of the Quest > Chapter IV. The Life and Labors of Heracles > The Battle of the Frogs and Mice
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Padraic Colum (1881–1972).  The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles.  1921.

Part III. The Heroes of the Quest
 
Chapter IV. The Life and Labors of Heracles
 
The Battle of the Frogs and Mice
 
A warlike mouse came down to the brink of a pond for no other reason than to take a drink of water. Up to him hopped a frog. Speaking in the voice of one who had rule and authority, the frog said:   1
  “Stranger to our shore, you may not know it, but I am Puff Jaw, king of the frogs. I do not speak to common mice, but you, as I judge, belong to the noble and kingly sort. Tell me your race. If I know it to be a noble one I shall show you my kingly friendship.”   2
  The mouse, speaking haughtily, said: “I am Crumb Snatcher, and my race is a famous one. My father is the heroic Bread Nibbler, and he married Quern Licker, the lovely daughter of a king. Like all my race I am a warrior who has never been wont to flinch in battle. Moreover, I have been brought up as a mouse of high degree, and figs and nuts, cheese and honeycakes is the provender that I have been fed on.”   3
  Now this reply of Crumb Snatcher pleased the kingly frog greatly. “Come with me to my abode, illustrious Crumb Snatcher,” said he, “and I shall show you such entertainment as may be found in the house of a king.”   4
  But the mouse looked sharply at him. “How may I get to your house?” he asked. “We live in different elements, you and I. We mice want to be in the driest of dry places, while you frogs have your abodes in the water.”   5
  “Ah,” answered Puff Jaw, “you do not know how favored the frogs are above all other creatures. To us alone the gods have given the power to live both in the water and on the land. I shall take you to my land palace that is the other side of the pond.”   6
  “How may I go there with you?” asked Crumb Snatcher the mouse, doubtfully.   7
  “Upon my back,” said the frog. “Up now, noble Crumb Snatcher. And as we go I will show you the wonders of the deep.”   8
  He offered his back and Crumb Snatcher bravely mounted. The mouse put his forepaws around the frog’s neck. Then Puff Jaw swam out. Crumb Snatcher at first was pleased to feel himself moving through the water. But as the dark waves began to rise his mighty heart began to quail. He longed to be back upon the land. He groaned aloud.   9
  “How quickly we get on,” cried Puff Jaw; “soon we shall be at my land palace.”   10
  Heartened by this speech, Crumb Snatcher put his tail into the water and worked it as a steering oar. On and on they went, and Crumb Snatcher gained heart for the adventure. What a wonderful tale he would have to tell to the clans of the mice!   11
  But suddenly, out of the depths of the pond, a water snake raised his horrid head. Fearsome did that head seem to both mouse and frog. And forgetful of the guest that he carried upon his back, Puff Jaw dived down into the water. He reached the bottom of the pond and lay on the mud in safety.   12
  But far from safety was Crumb Snatcher the mouse. He sank and rose, and sank again. His wet fur weighed him down. But before he sank for the last time he lifted up his voice and cried out and his cry was heard at the brink of the pond:   13
  “Ah, Puff Jaw, treacherous frog! An evil thing you have done, leaving me to drown in the middle of the pond. Had you faced me on the land I should have shown you which of us two was the better warrior. Now I must lose my life in the water. But I tell you my death shall not go unavenged—the cowardly frogs will be punished for the ill they have done to me who am the son of the king of the mice.”   14
  Then Crumb Snatcher sank for the last time. But Lick Platter, who was at the brink of the pond, had heard his words. Straightway this mouse rushed to the hole of Bread Nibbler and told him of the death of his princely son.   15
  Bread Nibbler called out the clans of the mice. The warrior mice armed themselves, and this was the grand way of their arming:   16
  First, the mice put on greaves that covered their forelegs. These they made out of bean shells broken in two. For shield, each had a lamp’s centerpiece. For spears they had the long bronze needles that they had carried out of the houses of men. So armed and so accoutered they were ready to war upon the frogs. And Bread Nibbler, their king, shouted to them: “Fall upon the cowardly frogs, and leave not one alive upon the bank of the pond. Henceforth that bank is ours, and ours only. Forward!”   17
  And, on the other side, Puff Jaw was urging the frogs to battle. “Let us take our places on the edge of the pond,” he said, “and when the mice come amongst us, let each catch hold of one and throw him into the pond. Thus we will get rid of these dry bobs, the mice.”   18
  The frogs applauded the speech of their king, and straightway they went to their armor and their weapons. Their legs they covered with the leaves of mallow. For breastplates they had the leaves of beets. Cabbage leaves, well cut, made their strong shields. They took their spears from the pond side—deadly pointed rushes they were, and they placed upon their heads helmets that were empty snail shells. So armed and so accoutered they were ready to meet the grand attack of the mice.   19
  When the robber came to this part of the story Heracles halted his march, for he was shaking with laughter. The robber stopped in his story. Heracles slapped him on the leg and said: “What more of the heroic exploits of the mice?” The second robber said, “I know no more, but perhaps my brother at the other side of you can tell you of the mighty combat between them and the frogs.” Then Heracles shifted the first robber from his back to his front, and the first robber said: “I will tell you what I know about the heroical combat between the frogs and the mice.” And thereupon he began:   20
  The gnats blew their trumpets. This was the dread signal for war.   21
  Bread Nibbler struck the first blow. He fell upon Loud Crier the frog, and overthrew him. At this Loud Crier’s friend, Reedy, threw down spear and shield and dived into the water. This seemed to presage victory for the mice. But then Water Larker, the most warlike of the frogs, took up a great pebble and flung it at Ham Nibbler who was then pursuing Reedy. Down fell Ham Nibbler, and there was dismay in the ranks of the mice.   22
  Then Cabbage Climber, a great-hearted frog, took up a clod of mud and flung it full at a mouse that was coming furiously upon him. That mouse’s helmet was knocked off and his forehead was plastered with the clod of mud, so that he was well-nigh blinded.   23
  It was then that victory inclined to the frogs. Bread Nibbler again came into the fray. He rushed furiously upon Puff Jaw the king.   24
  Leeky, the trusted friend of Puff Jaw, opposed Bread Nibbler’s onslaught. Mightily he drove his spear at the king of the mice. But the point of the spear broke upon Bread Nibbler’s shield, and then Leeky was overthrown.   25
  Bread Nibbler came upon Puff Jaw, and the two great kings faced each other. The frogs and the mice drew aside, and there was a pause in the combat. Bread Nibbler the mouse struck Puff Jaw the frog terribly upon the toes.   26
  Puff Jaw drew out of the battle. Now all would have been lost for the frogs had not Zeus, the father of the gods, looked down upon the battle.   27
  “Dear, dear,” said Zeus, “what can be done to save the frogs? They will surely be annihilated if the charge of yonder mouse is not halted.”   28
  For the father of the gods, looking down, saw a warrior mouse coming on in the most dreadful onslaught of the whole battle. Slice Snatcher was the name of this warrior. He had come late into the field. He waited to split a chestnut in two and to put the halves upon his paws. Then, furiously dashing amongst the frogs, he cried out that he would not leave the ground until he had destroyed the race, leaving the bank of the pond a playground for the mice and for the mice alone.   29
  To stop the charge of Slice Snatcher there was nothing for Zeus to do but to hurl the thunderbolt that is the terror of gods and men.   30
  Frogs and mice were awed by the thunder and the flame. But still the mice, urged on by Slice Snatcher, did not hold back from their onslaught upon the frogs.   31
  Now would the frogs have been utterly destroyed; but, as they dashed on, the mice encountered a new and a dreadful army. The warriors in these ranks had mailed backs and curving claws. They had bandy legs and long-stretching arms. They had eyes that looked behind them. They came on side-ways. These were the crabs, creatures until now unknown to the mice. And the crabs had been sent by Zeus to save the race of the frogs from utter destruction.   32
  Coming upon the mice they nipped their paws. The mice turned around and they nipped their tails. In vain the boldest of the mice struck at the crabs with their sharpened spears. Not upon the hard shells on the backs of the crabs did the spears of the mice make any dint. On and on, on their queer feet and with their terrible nippers, the crabs went. Bread Nibbler could not rally them any more, and Slice Snatcher ceased to speak of the monument of victory that the mice would erect upon the bank of the pond.   33
  With their heads out of the water they had retreated to, the frogs watched the finish of the battle. The mice threw down their spears and shields and fled from the battleground. On went the crabs as if they cared nothing for their victory, and the frogs came out of the water and sat upon the bank and watched them in awe.   34
  Heracles had laughed at the diverting tale that the robbers had told him; he could not bring them then to a place where they would meet with captivity or death. He let them loose upon the highway, and the robbers thanked him with high-flowing speeches, and they declared that if they should ever find him sleeping by the roadway again they would let him lie. Saying this they went away, and Heracles, laughing as he thought upon the great exploits of the frogs and mice, went on to Omphale’s house.   35
  Omphale, the widow, received him mirthfully, and then set him to do tasks in the kitchen while she sat and talked to him about Troy and the affairs of King Laomedon. And afterward she put on his lion’s skin, and went about in the courtyard dragging the heavy club after her. Mirthfully and pleasantly she made the rest of his time in Lydia pass for Heracles, and the last day of his slavery soon came, and he bade good-by to Omphale, that pleasant widow, and to Lydia, and he started off for Calydon to claim his bride Deianira.   36
  Beautiful indeed Deianira looked now that she had ceased to mourn for her brother, for the laughter that had been under her grief always now flashed out even while she looked priestesslike and of good counsel; her dark eyes shone like stars, and her being had the spirit of one who wanders from camp to camp, always greeting friends and leaving friends behind her. Heracles and Deianira wed, and they set out for Tiryns, where a king had left a kingdom to Heracles.   37
  They came to the River Evenus. Heracles could have crossed the river by himself, but he could not cross it at the part he came to, carrying Deianira. He and she went along the river, seeking a ferry that might take them across. They wandered along the side of the river, happy with each other, and they came to a place where they had sight of a centaur.   38
  Heracles knew this centaur. He was Nessus, one of the centaurs whom he had chased up the mountain the time when he went to hunt the Erymanthean boar. The centaurs knew him, and Nessus spoke to Heracles as if he had friendship for him. He would, he said, carry Heracles’s bride across the river.   39
  Then Heracles crossed the river, and he waited on the other side for Nessus and Deianira. Nessus went to another part of the river to make his crossing. Then Heracles, upon the other bank, heard screams—the screams of his wife, Deianira. He saw that the centaur was savagely attacking her.   40
  Then Heracles leveled his bow and he shot at Nessus. Arrow after arrow he shot into the centaur’s body. Nessus loosed his hold on Deianira, and he lay down on the bank of the river, his lifeblood streaming from him.   41
  Then Nessus, dying, but with his rage against Heracles unabated, thought of a way by which the hero might be made to suffer for the death he had brought upon him. He called to Deianira, and she, seeing he could do her no more hurt, came close to him. He told her that in repentance for his attack upon her he would bestow a great gift upon her. She was to gather up some of the blood that flowed from him; his blood, the centaur said, would be a love philter, and if ever her husband’s love for her waned it would grow fresh again if she gave to him something from her hands that would have this blood upon it.   42
  Deianira, who had heard from Heracles of the wisdom of the centaurs, believed what Nessus told her. She took a phial and let the blood pour into it. Then Nessus plunged into the river and died there as Heracles came up to where Deianira stood.   43
  She did not speak to him about the centaur’s words to her, nor did she tell him that she had hidden away the phial that had Nessus’s blood in it. They crossed the river at another point and they came after a time to Tiryns and to the kingdom that had been left to Heracles.   44
  There Heracles and Deianira lived, and a son who was named Hyllos was born to them. And after a time Heracles was led into a war with Eurytus—Eurytus who was king of Oichalia.   45
  Word came to Deianira that Oichalia was taken by Heracles, and that the king and his daughter Iole were held captive. Deianira knew that Heracles had once tried to win this maiden for his wife, and she feared that the sight of Iole would bring his old longing back to him.   46
  She thought upon the words that Nessus had said to her, and even as she thought upon them messengers came from Heracles to ask her to send him a robe—a beautifully woven robe that she had—that he might wear it while making a sacrifice. Deianira took down the robe; through this robe, she thought, the blood of the centaur could touch Heracles and his love for her would revive. Thinking this she poured Nessus’s blood over the robe.   47
  Heracles was in Oichalia when the messengers returned to him. He took the robe that Deianira sent, and he went to a mountain that overlooked the sea that he might make the sacrifice there. Iole went with him. Then he put on the robe that Deianira had sent. When it touched his flesh the robe burst into flame. Heracles tried to tear it off, but deeper and deeper into his flesh the flames went. They burned and burned and none could quench them.   48
  Then Heracles knew that his end was near. He would die by fire, and knowing that he piled up a great heap of wood and he climbed upon it. There he stayed with the flaming robe burning into him, and he begged of those who passed to fire the pile that his end might come more quickly.   49
  None would fire the pile. But at last there came that way a young warrior named Philoctetes, and Heracles begged of him to fire the pile. Philoctetes, knowing that it was the will of the gods that Heracles should die that way, lighted the pile. For that Heracles bestowed upon him his great bow and his unerring arrows. And it was this bow and these arrows, brought from Philoctetes, that afterward helped to take Priam’s city.   50
  The pile that Heracles stood upon was fired. High up, above the sea, the pile burned. All who were near that burning fled—all except Iole, that childlike maiden. She stayed and watched the flames mount up and up. They wrapped the sky, and the voice of Heracles was heard calling upon Zeus. Then a great chariot came and Heracles was borne away to Olympus. Thus, after many labors, Heracles passed away, a mortal passing into an immortal being in a great burning high above the sea.   51

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