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But the king, when he saw how beautiful and how brave she was (for of course it takes a very brave person to speak in that way to a king), said to himself, "She will be almost as good as a son," and he would not let her live any place but in the palace. And it was not long before every one there became so fond of her that it seemed strange they could ever have lived without her. Many princes came from all parts of Greece and wanted to marry her, but to every one she said, "I don't want to get married, and I'm not going to do anything I don't want to do."
"But, my dear child," said old King Jasius, "who ever heard of a princess without a husband? They always marry, and you'll just have to do it."
"But I don't want a husband," she said. "I like men to go hunting with, but I'm sure I couldn't bear to have one around all the time and to know that he was my husband."
Finally, however, when the king insisted and insisted, she thought of a way out.
"I'll marry any man," she said, "who can beat me in a foot race."
"That's fair enough," replied the king. "I'll send word to all the princes, and we'll have a great race."
"There's one thing more," added Atalanta. "Every man who tries and is beaten in the race must allow himself to be put to death."
She wasn't really such a cruel princess, but she thought that if the young men knew they would die if they failed, they would all go away and let her alone.
Her father looked very serious, but at last he said:
"Well, any one who will risk his life in that way is a fool, and deserves to die."
Word was sent to all the princes, but the most of them thought that while they loved Atalanta very much, they loved life even more, and they stayed away. Some of the princes, however, liked Atalanta so well that they could not bear to give her up without a trial, and when the day came for the first race, a number of strong young men were ready to try their luck. Every day a race was run, and every day, at the end of the race, some poor man had to lose his head. For no matter how strong they were, or how fast they could run, Atalanta beat them all easily. At last the people who watched the races began to feel that there had been enough blood shed, and to wonder if, after all, Atalanta were quite such a nice princess as they had thought her. Atalanta herself was very sorry for the foolish young men, but she could not stop now, for when a princess had once said she would do a thing, it was thought the worst sin in the world for her not to do it.
Now, among the princes who came there was one, named Hippomenes, who did not come to race. He had never seen Atalanta, and King Jasius had asked him to be there just to act as judge—that is, to watch the races and see who really came out ahead. The day before the first race Hippomenes went about telling the other princes how foolish he thought they were to risk their lives for such a thing.
"I should never be so foolish," he said. "No matter how beautiful and how rich the princess may be, she can't be as beautiful and as rich as the life I intend to lead."
But he never said such things after that first day. For when Atalanta stood up beside a brave young prince, ready for the first race, she looked so lovely, with her red cheeks and bright eyes and wind-blown hair, that Hippomenes fell in love with her on the spot. And as he watched her running and saw how graceful she was, he loved her more and more. Each day as he watched the race he found himself hoping that she would win, because he could not bear to think of any man but himself having her for his wife.
Finally, when all the other princes had run and had been beheaded, Hippomenes said to the king:
"And now I am ready to make my trial."
The king was surprised and grieved, because he had heard of the speeches Hippomenes had made to the other princes, and because he liked this young man the best of all who had come. But nothing he could say could induce Hippomenes to change his mind.
"I love Atalanta," he said, "and if I can't have her for my wife, I want to die."
Before going to the race course the next day, the prince, determined but frightened, prayed to Venus, the goddess who took especial care of people who were in love.
"Beautiful and powerful goddess." he prayed, "help me to win this race and Atalanta, and I shall never forget, as long as I live, to talk of your kindness and to make you rich gifts."
Now Venus was almost always ready to help people if they would admit that they could not get on without her, and while Hippomenes prayed, he saw that what he had thought was a soft white and gold cloud was really the goddess, coming toward him with her hand stretched out. She came nearer and nearer, and finally dropped at his feet three shining yellow apples. They were not common yellow apples—no indeed! They came from Venus's own garden, and were of heavy, precious gold.
"I thank you, goddess, for this fruit," said Hippomenes. "In all my life I have never seen anything more beautiful. But how can they help me?"
ATALANTA STOOPED FOR THE APPLE
Then Venus stooped and whispered to the youth, and when he again raised his eyes to thank her, she had disappeared. But there was a smile on the face of Hippomenes—he looked as if he were not worried about the race.
When he stood side by side with Atalanta, however, he tried not to look too happy. All the people looked at him and whispered (for they did not dare let the king hear them grumbling):
"Must this youth also be killed? He is the youngest and the handsomest of all, and the king's daughter is too cruel."
Atalanta herself was more sorry than she had ever been before that she had made the vow about the racing.
But when she tried to induce Hippomenes to give her up without a trial, he only smiled at her and said:
"Something tells me that I shall not fail."
Atalanta knew nothing about the three golden apples which he had hidden in front of his loose robe; and when she saw that he was so sure of winning, her cheeks grew red with anger, and she said to herself:
"I had thought, because you are so young and look so much nicer than any of the other princes, that I might let you beat me. But since you are so sure, I shall run my best; and you will not be smiling long."
There they stood, each with one foot forward, each looking light as a bird just ready to fly from a branch. And then, while all the onlookers held their breath, the herald gave the word, and they were off.