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
“Mother! Oh, gods, that I must call you so! But I will not — I will not give that sacred name to the woman who is my father’s murderess.”
He who thus spoke, a tall, handsome boy of about fifteen, stood looking at Deianeira with a countenance full of grief and horror. It was now evening, and she, racked with suspense, had stolen out into the courtyard to watch for the coming of some messenger with tidings from Euboea. The old nurse, who had followed her with vain prayers that she would take food and repose, sat dejectedly on the steps leading up to the house door, mumbling to herself, while her mistress paced restlessly to and fro. As her son entered the court, Deianeira had flown to meet him, but his first words made her shrink back as from a blow.
“Hyllus, my Hyllus,” she said piteously, “do not say such things — do not look at me like that! What have I done to deserve it?”
“What have you done!” repeated the boy bitterly. “Do you dare ask that of me, who have just seen your hideous work with my own eyes — seen the noblest man on earth foully done to death — and he my father? Well,” with a kind of cold fury, “you shall hear what you have done, since you do not know. It is a tale worth hearing — by such a loyal wife. Now, listen…”
He paused, struggling with emotion; then went on in a dull, expressionless voice, as though keeping stern hold of himself.
“I found my father on the steep headland they call Cenaeum, at the north end of the island; he was busied with marking out a sanctuary and setting up altars to Zeus, for a memorial of his victory. It was a happy meeting, and Heracles was full of glee and triumph. He was to offer a great burned sacrifice —twelve bulls, a hundred sheep, and goats— and the altar fires had just been kindled when Lichas arrived with your gift of the robe — that deadly robe. As soon as Heracles heard your message, he put it on with delight, bidding us admire its richness — and your kind forethought. ‘She has sent me,’ he exclaimed, ‘the one thing needful to complete the pomp of my thanksgiving.’ And with exulting mien he took his stand before the chief altar and began with a loud voice his prayer to Zeus.
“But as the flames, fed with sappy pine logs, blazed high on the altar, suddenly we saw beads of sweat break out upon him, and the robe shrinking and shriveling, till it clung as though glued upon his flesh… A frightful spasm convulsed him from head to foot. With a roar of pain, he turned on Lichas and bade him confess what plot he had laid to destroy him. The poor wretch protested that he was innocent — he had delivered the casket sealed as it left your hands and knew nothing at all about the robe except what you had told him to say, which he had faithfully repeated without thought of evil. And we could all see that the man was telling the truth. Poor, vain fool, he was no traitor — only the catspaw of a traitress.
“But Heracles, maddened with fiery pangs, could neither hear nor heed; he seized Lichas by the ankle, whirled him aloft as though he weighed no more than a kidling, and flung him sheer over the cliff. Drowned? No. He fell upon the beach, and his brains were dashed out on a jagged rock. So died your first victim… And at that, a groan of pity and horror burst from the assembled multitude; and all shrank back, avoiding to come within reach of Heracles. Yet I think their pity was for him as much as for Lichas — so frightful it was to see that mighty, magnificent frame in the throes of a hell-born torment. Now he rolled in the dust and now leaped high in air, like a wine-frenzied dancer. All the while, he kept tearing off fragments of the robe, that came away in blood-stained strips, with a crackling, hissing sound, and left dreadful marks on the scorched flesh beneath. All the while, he made the hills echo around us with noises like the roaring of a wounded lion…
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“At last, his wild eyes lighted on me, where I stood weeping amid the throng, and in hoarse, broken accents he said: ‘My son, come near… Do not fail me in this plight. I am dying… but you will stay by me… though you should die the same death.’… I was at his side in a moment, then, in painful whispers — for his strength was failing — he begged me to take him away… not to let him die there, in Euboea… He wanted to die in some quiet, lonely place, where there would be nobody to see…
“I promised —what would I not have promised at that moment?— and he pressed my hand to show that he understood; then a sort of trance came over him. And I had him carried down to the shore, and laid among wraps and cushions in a boat, and we have rowed him across the strait… yes, and he is to be brought on a litter to this house, this home of his, for where else could I find shelter for him? So, pray understand, you will see your husband very soon… He will most likely be dead… but you need not mind if he is not, for he cannot have many hours to live.”
Hyllus ended with a sob that choked his utterance; but with a final effort at composure: “Mother,” he said, “for mother of mine you are, to my shame and sorrow, you have heard from your son’s lips —since you willed it so— the story of your guilt. You have destroyed —the gods alone know what prompted you to such fiendish wickedness— the greatest hero that ever walked this earth; and by the vilest treachery caused him to die in lingering torments. And for that crime may the goddess Justice, and the Furies of nethermost hell that are her appointed ministers, wreak due vengeance upon you… if such a curse be lawful for me to utter. Nay, it is lawful — seeing you yourself have transgressed all law, human and divine.”
Deianeira had listened all this while as mute and motionless as though her son’s tale had turned her to stone; but at his last words she visibly shuddered and clasped her hands over her eyes, which till then had been fixed on his with a kind of dreadful, hungry pleading. Then, still silent, she drew her veil over her face, turned from him, and glided swiftly into the house.
The old nurse, cowering on the steps, scrambled to her feet and cried: “Stay, my lady, stay! Why don’t you tell him the truth? Speak to him, for mercy’s sake speak, Deianeira! Child, stay — where are you going?”
But Deianeira went past her without word or sign. At that, the old woman burst into tears; Hyllus came up to her and said sternly: “Let her go, nurse — the sooner she is out of my sight, the better, I tell you. Ay, she has gone off to exult in secret over her handiwork. May she have as much — joy of it… as that gift of hers has brought my father!”
“Now, the gods forgive you those words and the curse you uttered in your blindness, unhappy boy!” exclaimed the nurse. “Nay, hear me, Hyllus, for I will speak: your mother is innocent — she knew no more than you or I that there was aught deadly in the robe when she sent it. She knew, at least she guessed, afterward — but not until too late to overtake her messenger.”
“Oh, you take her part, do you?” answered Hyllus scornfully. “But you would, of course. Faithful slave that you are, how readily you lie, to save your mistress! But that plea will not serve it is too manifestly false, seeing she herself did not deny her guilt.”
“No, she did not, and I can tell you why,” said the old woman, with such earnestness and dignity in her look and tone as transformed her for the moment. “I can tell you why,” she repeated, “though I am a slave base-born, ignorant — yes, but yet a woman, and one that has known motherhood. And I see —though I did not for a moment, being old and stupid— I see that my lady, in her nobleness, could not answer you. Oh, child that I nursed on my knees, don’t you see that, too? Her son, her own beloved son, comes and taxes her with the murder of his father! He can believe that of her; of the mother whose loving care has surrounded him from his birth till now — whose sweet nature none can know so well as he. And she does not deny it — she makes no answer! Hyllus, Hyllus, ask yourself: what answer was possible, from her to you?”
At that instant, shrill screams, as of frightened women, arose within the house. A handmaid, with pale, scared face, appeared in the doorway and cried out: “Nurse, where are you? Come, come quick, for the love of the gods!”
The old nurse threw up her hands with a gesture of despair, and looking wildly at Hyllus: “There is your answer, boy,” she said, and rushed into the house.