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
It was a somewhat crestfallen Lichas who stood in Deianeira’s chamber about an hour later. He had blustered for a moment — tried to order the rough-looking stranger about his business; but he saw in one glance at his mistress’s face that it was useless to dissemble further. He began a mumbled apology; she quietly said that she would send for him presently and walked past him into the house. Immediately after, the nurse had bustled out and drawn that objectionable stranger aside; she seemed to be offering him something, but he shook his head and hurried off. The nurse exchanged whispers with a group of girls who were lingering in the court; and they likewise departed, except one, who followed her indoors. Then Lichas too had gone in, and busied himself with overseeing the settling-in of the captive women until he should be summoned…
Deianeira was leaning wearily back in a low chair; the girl Chloris sat near, watching her with fond, anxious eyes.
“I have not deserved this, Lichas,” she began in her gentle voice; “I am not so vicious-tempered, nor so ignorant of what life is —what men are— that I could not be safely trusted with the truth… My lord forgets” —with a quivering lip— “that I am not a child, but a woman who has loved and suffered too much not to understand — and pardon.”
“You must not blame him, lady,” said Lichas, touched into honesty for once. “My master knows nothing about the deception. I invented the story myself — all, that is, except his having killed Iphitus and been sold into slavery in Lydia — but, believe me, I only meant to spare you pain.”
“For how long?” said Deianeira, with a sad smile. “Ah, Lichas, you meant kindly, I know, but truth is the only real kindness to natures like mine. Let me know the worst and face it, always! I have had much to bear, you know, sometimes —but never deceit— Heracles never stooped to that. Thanks, Lichas, for telling me I wronged him there. How could I,” she added tenderly; “so frank and high-minded he is so noble in his very faults!”
“Sits the wind there again?” thought Lichas. “All’s well, now, then. Well, my dear lady,” he said briskly, “Heracles will be right glad to hear you take things so calmly and reasonably. For his sake and your own — let me urge you to be kind and friendly not only towards him, but towards your new housemate.”
“How could I be otherwise?” said Deianiera simply. “Do you think I can feel one spark of enmity or bitterness against that most unhappy child — who has done me no wrong? At first sight, my heart ached with pity for her… and how much more now, when I know the whole unutterable cruelty of her fate. Think of it, Lichas… so young, so lovely… and that loveliness made a curse to her, bringing ruin and death upon her father’s house and her native land!”
“Certainly,” said Lichas, “Iole cannot help her beauty, which, as you say, was the root of all the trouble; but few women would speak so generously of a rival. I feared that a natural jealousy——”
“Enough, herald,” said Deianeira with dignity. “You have already taken too much upon you — do not presume further on your office. Commend me to my lord and husband and take him this gift from me in return for — what he has sent me.”
So saying, she took from a table beside her a cedar wood box, clamped with silver, and handed it to the herald.
“It is not locked,” she said, “but sealed with my own seal, which Heracles will recognize. Bid him put on the rich robe that is in it when he offers to Zeus the sacrifice of thanksgiving that you told me of — and say I made and have kept it purposely to adorn him on a day of victory, and therefore beg he will wear it without fail.”
“I shall do your errand faithfully, noble mistress,” returned the herald, “and will now take my leave, for I must hasten back to assist at the solemn rites. But now I think of it, where is your son Hyllus all this time? It would be fitting he should go with me and greet his father.”
“Ah, you have not heard, then,” said Deianiera. “Word came to the house just now that Hyllus has already set out for Euboea. It seems he went out early to see the festival here, heard you proclaim the great news, and rushed down to the shore, where he chartered a boat from his friends the fishermen.”
“That was just like him,” said the herald admiringly. “Prompt and self-reliant — a true son of Heracles, as I always foretold of him. Well, gracious lady, it only remains that I should bid you farewell.” And he bowed himself out of the room…
There was a brief silence; Deianeira shifted uneasily in her chair; her fingers plucked nervously at the folds of her gold-embroidered gown. And then: “Chloris, dear Chloris,” she said, “how good you were to give up your day of pleasure to stay with me. Your loving sympathy is very precious to me —and I need it, I am so alone— with none to help or advise me. I have taken a daring step — I fear too hastily, but in my torturing perplexity it suddenly seemed the one hope… And I want to tell you about it… yes, I must speak. Chloris, I am going to trust you with a great secret, but you will never betray it, I know.”
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“Never, beloved lady,” the girl said earnestly.
“Listen, then,” Deianeira went on. “That robe I have sent to Heracles holds a love charm that will win his heart back to me, if indeed I may trust the word of the strange being who gave it me in his dying moments… I was a bride then —ah, how little I thought I should ever need it!— and journeying over the mountains with Heracles to my new home. We had to cross the roaring torrent of the Evenus, and at the ford we found one of the wild centaurs, Nessus by name, who offered to carry us over for a fee, as he did other travelers. And Heracles, laughing, lifted me on the centaur’s back, but himself waded breast-deep through the ford, ahead of us. But in midstream the man-beast seized me in a fierce embrace — I shrieked with terror — Heracles, who had just reached the bank, turned like lightning, and the next instant an arrow from his bow was quivering in Nessus’s side.
“He plunged ashore and sank down gasping. I slid from his back and stood watching him with pity, for I knew he must die very quickly, and that seemed so cruel, though it had to be. He knew it too. ‘I am sped,’ he whispered. ‘The Hydra’s poison is on those arrows. Stay by me but a few moments, wife of Heracles, and let me speak with you alone — it shall avail you much.’ At that, I begged my lord to wait for me at a little distance, and he consented easily, with a smile at my soft-heartedness.
“And then Nessus did a strange thing… He pulled out the arrow from his side and caught the gush of blood that followed in a small drinking cup of horn that hung from a leathern thong around his neck. ‘The ferryman’s luck gift to his last passenger,’ he said, holding out the cup. ‘Wrap it in your veil — hide it away, and keep it safe till the day comes when you have need of it.’ And in broken whispers, for he was dying fast, he told me that his blood had strong magic in it, whereby I could make my husband love none but me forever — I had only to anoint a garment with it and cause Heracles to wear it, and he would have no eyes for any other woman, though she were as fair as Aphrodite herself. But Nessus warned me that I must not let the anointed garment be exposed to sunlight or the heat of a fire, until Heracles put it on, for that was part of the charm. So I have sent it to him in a sealed casket, as you saw.”
“Yes, I saw,” answered Chloris gravely; “but I little thought… Oh, dearest lady, I do not wonder you feel uneasy about this. There are terrible stories about the strange working of love potions and such-like spells — how they sometimes bring madness, or even death, upon those they are practiced on. One of our neighbors has the name of a wise woman, and some maidens that I know have had dealings with her — they say she can make charms with herbs gathered by moonlight and with drugs that she keeps by her, to bring back their sweethearts if they prove fickle. But my mother says she is a witch, and forbids me to go near her — and, indeed, I would never dare, for I believe she has the evil eye. Certainly, it is dangerous to offend her — everyone says that, if you do, you are sure to fall sick or have bad luck of some kind. And, in my poor thought, there is more harm than good in all magic art, for it is oftenest used for bad ends, as I am sure this woman’s is.”
“Nay,” said Deianeira, “the harm is in those that use it so. Wicked women, I know, have used deadly drugs and enchantments to rid themselves of a rival, or to avenge themselves on a faithless lover — but the gods forbid I should be such a one. I would rather die than hurt one hair of my dear lord’s head — ay, and if evil befell him through me I could not live. But it will not — it cannot… I will shake off these fears of I know not what. Do not talk of love potions, Chloris, for I have sent him none — nothing that can hurt him. The worst that can happen is that the charm may fail — that the centaur’s blood has no such power as he said — but even so, I shall have done no harm by trying, and Heracles will never know… Ah, that reminds me! I have left Nessus’s drinking horn on a table in my bed chamber — I must put it away again, lest the nurse should see it and ask questions.”
So saying, she rose and went into an inner room, half closing the door behind her. Chloris could hear her moving softly to and fro as though putting the room in order, and the sound of a coffer being closed and locked. Then dead silence for a minute or two — and then the door was flung violently open and Deianeira rushed towards her, deathly pale, with terror in her eyes.
“What is it? Oh, what is it?” cried the girl, starting up in dismay.
“The robe,” gasped Deianiera, quivering from head to foot. It is poisoned… It will kill him… I have killed my husband… Oh, fool, blind fool, not to have seen it was a trap… the centaur’s revenge!”
Her voice failed; she flung herself down upon a couch and lay hiding her face, shaken with tearless sobs.
To see her patroness, always so self-controlled, thus suddenly overpowered as by a mortal blow, was very terrible to Chloris. Too bewildered to speak, she knelt beside her, trying to soothe her with timid caresses, and casting frightened glances towards the inner room. Deianiera must have seen some dreadful sight, she thought; something —or someone— uncanny, for how else could she know, all in a moment, what she had gasped out? But the door stood wide open, and Chloris could see nothing unusual in the room beyond. Strong sunlight filled it, for its window faced due south; whereas the larger, outer room had windows opening northward and was now in shade. Perhaps, after all, the dear lady had only been suddenly overcome by panic at what she had done in a reckless moment — and no wonder she should break down, after the trials she had gone through that day!
So thinking, Chloris plucked up courage to say: “Sweet lady, these are fancies of your overwrought brain. Do not give way to them, I beg and pray of you! Come, look up, and be comforted — all may yet go well. Nay, you do wrong to despair, for if there is danger in the robe —which the gods avert— you cannot be sure of that without proof, and you have none yet.”
“But I have — I have proof,” cried Deianeira in tones of anguish. She raised herself on the couch, slowly, feebly.
And at sight of her wax-white face, Chloris exclaimed: “Ah, you are faint — ill — let me fetch the old nurse”, and started towards the door.
“Do not go, do not call anyone,” said Deianeira, more calmly. “I need nothing… Only help me to sit up put the cushions behind me… so; now listen, child. Just now, when I had put the horn cup back in my jewel chest, I remembered that I had thrown the tuft of wool I used in anointing the robe down on the floor. You see, I found the centaur’s blood was still liquid —I thought that nothing strange, it was of the enchantment— and so was its spreading like oil over the inside of the purple robe, and showing no stain.
“And being in haste, I smeared it on with the first thing that came to hand, which was a tuft out of the basket of fine, white wool that lay ready for my spinning… I remembered that I threw it down near the window… And I looked… and there, on the floor, with the sunlight streaming down on it, I saw a little black thing, like a bit of smoldering charcoal. But it was not charcoal; there were hairs in it… and, oh, horrible!… drops of something greasy, like foul oil, were trickling from it on the floor… With that, the truth burst on me like a thunderclap.
“Oh, merciful gods, was ever such folly as mine since you first made womankind? I knew the arrows of Heracles were dipped in the Hydra’s venom, one touch whereof turns the blood to liquid flame. Yet I could take blood so tainted as a gift, a love charm… ay, and take the gift from one who lay dying by my husband’s hand, and of whose death I was the cause! What lunacy possessed me, that I could not see how Nessus must hate us both, and that any gift he proffered me must be designed to work our ruin?
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“Alas, I pitied him, the strange, tameless creature of the woodlands; and I could forgive him for compassing the death of his enemy… A life for a life is wild justice… but to strike Heracles through me… Oh, ’twas the malice of a fiend!”
She broke off, shuddering, and there was silence awhile in the chamber. Then, rising from the couch, Deianeira took the maiden of Trachis by the hand and gently kissed her brow.
“Leave me now, dear Chloris,” she said. “It grows late, and it is time you were at home. Take the last warmth of my lips, for something tells me this is farewell indeed, and your friend will shortly be with them that rest.”