This is a chapter of Evergreen Stories by W. M. L. Hutchinson. It includes the following stories: King Midas and His Strange Adventures — Alcestis, the Noble Wife — The Real Helen — Cupid and Psyche — The Vision of Er — Circe, the Island Witch — Bellerophon, the Rider of Pegasus — How Theseus Slew the Minotaur — Odysseus in the Land of Shadows — Heracles and the Poisoned Robe | The Story of Pheidippides — The Story of Solon, Croesus, and Cyrus
Heracles and the Poisoned Robe has the following chapters: 1. Deianeira Awaits Heracles’s Return | 2. Deianeira Receives News Concerning Heracles | 3. Deianeira’s Deadly Gift | 4. Deianeira Realizes What She Has Done | 5. Heracles’s Last Wishes
As when Alcides, from Oechalia crownedParadise Lost, ii, 542
with conquest, felt the envenomed robe and tore
through pain up by the roots Thessalian pines,
and Lichas from the top of Oeta threw
into the Euboic sea.
“Then you will not come to our festival, gracious lady? We had hoped it might cheer you — the procession will be splendid, and we three are to lead the choir of girls.”
“Kind and dear maidens, you must forgive me. I should love to hear your fresh voices raise the hymn to Artemis. But my heart is too heavy to share in rejoicings. Nay, troubled as I am, my presence would but cloud the brightness of your festal day.”
The last speaker, a woman of great beauty though no longer young, smiled tenderly at the three fair-haired girls who stood before her — then turned her head aside and wiped away with her broidered veil the tears that suddenly brimmed her eyes.
“But you need not go yet,” she added, recovering herself; “it is still early. Stay, dear children, and bear me company a little while. And you, Chloris, tell me about the procession to the temple and the games that are to follow.”
“Dearest princess,” answered the girl who had first spoken, “you are always too good to us. But I would rather not speak of such matters while you are thus sad. May I ask you a question instead?”
“Surely, child,” said the lady; “only sit down first beside me.” And she pointed to the marble bench, strewn with cushions, on which she sat.
It was a delicious morning of early summer. The little town of Trachis, mountain-built with peaceful citadel, had been astir since daybreak, its pious folk all busied with preparations for the yearly Feast of Artemis. Only in one dwelling —a large, stately house a little way outside the walls— silence reigned instead of joyous bustle. It was in the forecourt of this house that the three girls, daughters of thriving citizens, talked with their honored friend, its mistress. From where they now sat beside her they could see beyond the rich, flower-spangled pastures of the glen, a ribbon of sparkling sea — and beyond that, the blue hills of the long island of Euboea.
On their right huge Mount Oeta, dark with pine forest, stood sentinel over the little white-walled burg at his foot. Beneath the azure sky of Greece, and bathed in her crystalline air, the prospect was one to gladden the eyes of the most sorrowful. At least these maidens thought so, but they were very young. Their older companion gazed at it sadly, absently… her thoughts seemed far away. After a few moments of silence:
“What is it you would ask me, Chloris?” she said.
Half shyly the girl answered: “Royal Deianeira, I would —so please you— I would ask why you are so low-spirited today, for the portress told us just now there are no tidings yet of your lord and husband, Heracles. Dear lady, he has been very long away — but till now you have been so patient, so hopeful. Forgive me, but should not you trust in Zeus, who has brought him safe through a thousand perils, to watch over him still?”
“Hush, Chloris, you are overbold,” said another of the maidens reprovingly. “Taking upon yourself to lecture the princess! I wonder to hear you.”
“Do not chide your sister, Phyllis,” said Deianeira sweetly. “I would have you all talk freely to me, as to a friend that loves you. And it is true I have had no news of my lord, so her question was but natural. Nay, I am glad you asked it, dear Chloris, for I think it will ease my heart a little to speak out the fear that oppresses me… Alas, alas! I cannot but fear the worst now this day has dawned, and still no tidings! Listen, maidens, and you shall hear the reason — but first I must tell you of things long past, or you will not understand.”
And drawing Chloris to her side —who had blushed scarlet and looked ready to cry at her sister’s reproof— Deianeira took the girl’s hand in hers and stroked it caressingly now and again while she told her tale…
“There is an old, old saying: ‘Call no man happy until his life’s end.’ And that is wisdom, for the fairest fortune and that which looks to be firmest rooted may wither in a day, so that ’tis idle to count any mortal happy until death has closed the reckoning. But some lives are so full of trouble from the beginning that they may be written down unhappy before the end — and such has mine been, alas!
“You all know —for all Hellas rang with it— the sorrow that darkened my father’s house in my childish days — how Meleager my brother, the flower of the flock, died untimely by our passionate mother’s deed — how in her bitter wrath against him she burned the brand that was his life charm… Then, yet a girl, younger than any of you, I began to suffer such terrors as never poor maid before, for a strange and frightful wooer haunted me — the wild spirit of the Achelous River. Three times he came to the palace of my father Oineus and demanded me for his wife — ay, came visibly, in broad daylight, and each time in a different shape, as water gods can. First like a shaggy mountain bull; then as a great, dappled snake; then like to a man, but with a bull’s face and horns.
“My father, grown old and feeble, durst not refuse openly, but made pretexts for delay; as for me, in my despair, I prayed for death rather than such a bridal. But, at the eleventh hour, came my deliverer — the great-hearted son of Zeus and Alcmena came to our house, seeking hospitality, and saved me as he has saved many another helpless creature. He fought with Achelous on his own riverbank… I was set near at hand to be the winner’s prize… they grappled… I could not watch that dreadful struggle, but shut my eyes, sick and faint. It seemed hours before I heard Heracles calling me by name…
“I looked up, and he stood before me, smiling… and that horned Terror was fled. And I was married to Heracles the next day — ah, girls, I knew happiness then, for you may guess if I loved him, my champion, my man of men. But it was so brief, so brief! Almost ever since I have lived in continual dread for my husband, and as lonely as though I were in truth the widow that my fears often told me I was… for Heracles, it seems, was bound by decree of Zeus to serve his kinsman Eurystheus, king of Argos, for twelve years, and all that time Eurystheus sent him on one perilous quest after another, up and down the world. My children scarce knew their father’s face, he was so seldom at home and so long absent from us. Well, that thraldom ended at last, and I looked for peace.
“But Eurystheus, tyrant that he is, in his jealous hatred of my noble husband, made some pretext for banishing him and his from Argos. My lord brought me hither, saying your worthy king had been his friend of old and would protect me and the children; but he himself, he said, must go on yet another far journey. Why, or whither, he would not tell me, for all my pleading. ‘Be of good cheer, my wife,’ he said, as I wept at leave-taking. ‘This time I am to encounter neither giants nor monsters. Trust me, I shall be safe enough; and for your comfort, I promise to be with you again this day twelvemonth. Will that content you?’
“‘Alas, dear husband,’ cried I, ‘how can you promise that, when we know not what a day may bring forth to us poor, short-lived mortals?’
“‘Why, very true,’ said he. ‘Remember, then, I shall return in a year from today if I am alive. If I do not, you will know that Heracles
is… at rest.’
“And so he left me… The weary time has crept by without ever a word of tidings… and, maidens, pity me now, for this is the day he spoke of, and still not a sign! Oh, I cannot but fear the worst, now.”
“But it is early yet,” ventured Chloris. “Why should you give up hope already, lady? Think, noble Heracles may be close at hand even now — at any moment he may be with you again!”
“That is what I keep telling her,” exclaimed a shrill, grumbling voice; “but she heeds me no more than if I were a magpie. I have nursed her children, and herself too — but that goes for nothing, of course. Oh, no, I’m just a poor, ignorant old slave, you see, my pretty maids; nobody cares what I say.”
The girls looked round, smiling slyly at each other, as a grey-haired, wrinkled woman hobbled towards them from the house. Like everyone else in Trachis, they knew that this faithful servant ruled her gentle mistress with undisputed sway.
“Ah, nurse,” said Deianeira, sighing deeply, “I know what you say is very right — very sensible, as always. But the truth is, I have the strangest foreboding of some evil to befall… Call me foolish if you will, but I cannot shake it off.”
“Dreams and omens come from the gods,” said the old woman, “and forebodings too, sometimes. But sometimes they turn out false, and that kind come from nothing but brooding and fretting, as you have been doing this long while, and I hope and pray and believe that yours is just one of those. Nay, I’ll be bound, it is, sweet mistress, for no news is good news, you know — and if anything had gone amiss with our lord Heracles, we should be sure to have heard of it by this time.”
“I have no faith in your proverb, nurse,” said Deianeira, shaking her head sadly. “Nay, to have had no news — not even a rumor of any sort, for a whole twelvemonth seems to me the worst sign there could be. It is the very mainspring of my fears… Why, on all his other journeys Heracles has never been absent more than half a year; yet some report of him always reached us during that time — word would come through shipmen or travelers that he had been seen or heard of in such and such places, going or returning. How could his comings and goings not be noised abroad everywhere, so famous as he is? Yet now — not the least whisper comes; he seems to have disappeared from human sight… Oh, what can it mean?” Sobbing, she added: “Alas, where could the light of his glorious deeds be so long hidden — except in the grave?”
“Do not speak unlucky words, my child, do not,” exclaimed the old nurse with alarm; and: “Hush, princess, hush!” murmured the girls in chorus.
Then Chloris said: “Dearest lady, though I am only a simple, unlessoned girl, a thought has come to me that perhaps may comfort you a little. Might it not be that you got news of great Heracles on his former journeys because you were living in that rich, ancient city of Argos, where traders and travelers are always flocking by sea and land — and get none here because there is no one to bring it? For no one does come to our sleepy little town, you know! Right out of the world it is, as my father often says, and perched up among the hills like a crow’s nest on a tree top. Why, we hear next to nothing even about what goes on in Euboea over yonder!”
“You speak like a wise girl,” cried the nurse; and I warrant you have hit the truth of the matter. To be sure, the moon might fall out of the sky and we never hear of it, in this out-of-the-way corner! So do you know what I would do, my lady, instead of pining and tormenting yourself about your husband? I would send someone to look for him directly — that is, if you cannot just wait and see whether he does not come today, after all.”
“I have thought of that often,” said Deianeira, “but I have no one to send, alas!”
“You have Hyllas,” answered the nurse. “He is very young, to be sure, but a fine, manly lad, and has a head on his shoulders. In my poor opinion, being the eldest son, it’s his duty to go in search of his father, and so I should tell him, if I were you.”
“He would go in a moment, if I did,” said Deianeira. “Hyllas worships his father. From a child his greatest delight has been to hear me tell his marvelous adventures, and already —for the dear boy is grave and thoughtful beyond his years— I can see his whole mind is bent on proving a worthy son of Heracles. But dare I send him out into the world — alone? If we had the herald Lichas, now, or any of the old retainers to go with him…!”
“I never thought much of that Lichas,” put in the nurse; “a pushing, meddlesome fellow! We had no great loss when my lord left him behind at Argos — where most likely he serves Eurystheus now.”
“No, no,” said Deianeira. “Lichas would not do that, I am sure. Whatever his faults, he loves his master and would have followed him into exile, only Heracles forbade him. ‘What does a banished man want with a herald, my good fellow?’ he said… But there is another difficulty, dear nurse — I could not tell Hyllas even in what direction to go: east, west, south, or north! Always, before, I at least knew to what country Heracles was bound, and even if it was an unknown land, in which quarter of the world it lay… Oh, nurse, why did he keep his errand a secret from me this last and only time? That is the strangest thing of all… so unlike his frank, open ways.”
“Why? For some good reason, you may be sure,” replied the old woman sagely. “But never mind that now, for as I was saying——”
Here, eager cries from the maidens interrupted her.
“News! See, here comes news at last!” they exclaimed. And as Deianeira rose up, trembling violently, Chloris cried joyously:
“‘Tis good news, dear princess — look, the messenger wears a garland in sign of it!”