The young men would not take “No!” for an answer, however. They could not believe that she really meant it, and so they kept coming and staying until the woods of Arcadia were full of them, and there was no getting along with them at all. So, when she could think of no other way to get rid of them, Atalanta called them together and said:
“You want to marry me, do you? Well, if any one of you would like to run a race with me from this mountain to the bank of the river over there, he may do so; and I will be the wife of the one who outruns me.”
“Agreed! agreed!” cried all the young fellows.
“But, listen!” she said. “Whoever tries this race must also agree that if I outrun him, he must lose his life.”
Ah, what long faces they all had then! About half of them drew away and went home.
“But won’t you give us the start of you a little?” asked the others.
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “I will give you the start by a hundred paces. But remember, if I overtake any one before he reaches the river, he shall lose his head that very day.”
Several others now found that they were in ill health or that business called them home; and when they were next looked for, they were not to be found. But a good many who had had some practice in sprinting across the country stayed and made up their minds to try their luck. Could a mere girl outrun such fine fellows as they? Nonsense!
And so it happened that a race was run almost every day. And almost every day some poor fellow lost his head; for the fleetest-footed sprinter in all Greece was overtaken by Atalanta long before he could reach the river bank. But other young men kept coming and coming, and no sooner had one been put out of the way than another took his place.
One day there came from a distant town a handsome, tall young man named Meilanion.
“You’d better not run with me,” said Atalanta, “for I shall be sure to overtake you, and that will be the end of you.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Meilanion.
Now Meilanion, before coming to try his chance, had talked with Venus, the queen of love, who lived with Jupiter among the clouds on the mountain top. And he was so handsome and gentle and wise that Venus took pity on him, and gave him three golden apples and told him what to do.
Well, when all was ready for the race, Atalanta tried again to persuade Meilanion not to run, for she also took pity on him.
“I’ll be sure to overtake you,” she said.
“All right!” said Meilanion, and away he sped; but he had the three golden applies in his pocket.
Atalanta gave him a good start, and then she followed after, as swift as an arrow shot from the bow. Meilanion was not a very fast runner, and it would not be hard for her to overtake him. She thought that she would let him get almost to the goal, for she really pitied him. He heard her coming close behind him; he heard her quick breath as she gained on him very fast. Then he threw one of the golden apples over his shoulder.